Public Access Evolution: Global Action Needed to Maintain the Stability of The Human Genome

Photo Credit: NHGRI

By Bennett Batten
Contributing Writer

In November 2018 the scientific community was stunned when the guest speaker to the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, He Jiankui, decided to share a fun surprise. He had successfully edited the embryonic DNA of twin girls! He deactivated a gene called CCR5 with the goal of  decreasing the risk of acquiring HIV. In reaction to this event an international body of scientists called for a temporary global moratorium on heritable genome editing, and the World Health Organization (WHO) formed an advisory committee on “Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing”. While both of those developments are positive, they do not fix the problem that was highlighted.  

Advancements in genetic engineering have far surpassed our global institutions’ ability to regulate them. With the development of genetic engineering tools such as CRISPR and gene drives, paired with the growing popularity of DIY labs, access to bioweapon creation or human enhancement has become open to the public.

Back in 2014 a scientist at Vanderbilt University stated that experiments that previously required 18 months and $20,000 now only take 3 weeks and $3,000. It’s been 6 years since that statement, so it’s safe to assume that prices have fallen farther. Entrepreneurs have met these falling prices with DIY biohacker labs. The first of their kind opened in 2010. By 2017 there were more than 50 in the USA alone. Lack of regulation and security at these private biolabs have concerned the FDA and FBI, but no cohesive protocol has been put in place by the federal government to address safety and ethical concerns. 

A vulnerability from open access genetic engineering is an inability to contain negative side effects. Most genes affect and are affected by others. When Jiankui “deleted” the gene CCR5 in the twin girls, he knowingly increased their likelihood of health complications from viral infections and improved their cognitive abilities. The study of how genes interact with one another is complex and incomplete. How these side effects will manifest in the twins is unknown. If a germline genetic alteration is made unbeknownst to governments or academia, a containment crisis to the alteration could occur.  

Unlike the threat of nuclearization, creating a bioweapon doesn’t have its own version of a radiation footprint. Even with detectable signs of nuclearization, misguided wars of suspicion have destabilized parts of the globe. “Gene editing could allow scientists to develop biological weapons capable of discriminating among target populations based on ethnic, racial, or other genetically defined characteristics.” Having the capacity to carry out genocide by use of bioweapns is a threat of equal concern to having nuclear capabilities. Since the creation process of bioweapons has no obvious tells built in, paranoia on the weapons capacity of enemy groups could rise.

So, what tools do we have to prevent illegal bioengineering? The Bioweapons Convention (BWC) of 1975 resulted in the multilateral disarmament of treaty member states. Members agreed to ban the development, production, and stockpiling of these weapons. Currently the BWC holds a review conference every five years, and one annual week-long meeting of government experts. The annual meeting is intended to track progress and raise issues. Attendee, Malcolm Dando, and Professor of international security at the University  of Bradford, UK raised concerns that the goal of these meetings are not being accomplished. “In 2013, for example the experts’ meeting scheduled a mere six hours of discussions on science and technology — less than a day. That is not enough time for complex science to be presented, digested and discussed, and not enough to consider its implications and suggest revisions to the BWC.”  

The World Health Organization committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing has been actively responding to the problem. In March, 2019 they called for a temporary ban on clinical application of human germline genome editing (heritable changes to genes), while developing a mandatory registry for all planned and ongoing research relevant to gene editing. 

The main objectives of any new policy need to ensure global security by preventing unregistered experiments from contaminating the public gene pool, or privately used for human enhancement. Another objective is the protection of human rights. No unborn person should be subjected to genetic experimentation without the endorsement of the scientific community, its guardians, and society. This will ensure the safety of the child, and that social morality associated with editing human DNA is not violated.  

A focal concern about He Jiankui’s experiment on the twins is how easy it was for him to keep it under wraps. An international registry for all genome editing studies will serve as a deterrent to ambitious scientists, if unregistered studies are prohibited from accessing funding, and barred from publication. This does not deter private moneyed interests that have no desire in publication. Jiaunkui kept his experiment under wraps by lying to, and concealing information from staff, as well as exploiting “… loosely worded and irregularly enforced regulations…” in China. This is exemplary of how one person under current protocol has the ability to shirk regulations and laws by mislabeling actions, and misinforming staff. 

To prevent unsanctioned bioengineering, awareness of humanity’s growing ability to control the future of our species’ evolution needs to be raised. From as early as elementary school, we should instill in the coming generations a humble and almost sacred approach to gene editing. Requiring all DIY labs to host a security guard and in-house lab technician to monitor what is being conducted is low hanging fruit, but still impactful. 

All the necessary materials to perform genetic experiments is basic lab equipment, and since the Cas9 enzyme (the key tool used in CRISPR) is a protein, controlling distribution is not logical. Currently there is no way to detect at home laboratories.  Modifying a centrifuges energy footprint, or frequency discharge into a pattern that identifies itself could provide a way to locate unregistered experiments. 

The BWC has been successful so far in its mission of keeping bioweapons from being developed and utilized in warfare. For it to be successful in preventing the weaponization of gene editing, it should quadruple the time it’s experts and delegates meet yearly in order to dedicate adequate time to policy development. How the BWC evolves is up to debate. Two main paths are available: – one that prioritizes state sovereignty and holds that each state is responsible for all bioterrorism threats within its borders, and another that prioritizes the global genetic stability of the species over state sovereignty. However, many states do not have the capacity to fund programs of surveillance and security to prohibit extremist groups from using their territory

Article 39 in The Charter of the United Nations gives The Security Council (UNSC)  authority to label threats to international peace, and the duty of deciding what actions to take to restore/protect peace. Any action taken requires approval of all five permanent member states (US, GB, FR, CHN, RU). To facilitate productive policy development that would address ranking the priorities of sovereignty and genetic stability, the BWC should request annual discussions with the five permanent member states of the UNSC. 

It is the duty of our global institutions to be predictive of future threats to international peace. To minimize the occurrence of genetic crisis events, effective deterrents must be developed. It is time now to raise cultural awareness of this issue and to pressure our global institutions to take action. 

WHERE SCIENCE AND POLICY CROSS PATHS: AN INTERVIEW WITH AN OCEAN SCIENTIST

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By Melanie Emr
Staff Writer

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international environmental treaty negotiated between 194 parties. Every year since 1995, the conference congregates as the Conference of the Parties (COP) to assess efforts and progress in addressing climate change. Last November, the city of Warsaw in Poland hosted the 2013 COP. The goals of the COP were to promote sustainable development, stimulate green investments and discuss how to finance environmental protection activities. I sat down with Lauren Linsmayer, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, San Diego’s (UCSD) Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Lauren researches marine biology and plays an active role in the interdisciplinary community at UCSD. Recently, she gave a presentation in front of a panel of seasoned ocean scientists at an event sponsored by the U.N. entitled “Ocean Acidification-the other CO2 Problem.” Her talk on the biological and ecosystem implications of ocean acidification can be found here. I sat down with Lauren to discuss her work. She detailed her unique experience at the COP, gave a political analysis of the COP’s goals and shed further light on her research regarding corals and ocean acidification.

To whom did you present your research? What parties were involved?

I presented at one of ten official U.N.-sponsored events during the COP. My event was the only one that focused on the ocean, specifically on the topic of “Ocean Acidification: The Other CO2 Problem.” The event was full house, standing room only.  While we did not take attendance or record what organizations or delegations the audience members represented, the crowd included a diverse mix of delegates, non-governmental organizations and other observer organizations that represented a vast geographical diversity. During the Q&A after the formal presentations, we received questions from representatives of developed and developing countries around the world. Those from coastal and developing nations especially wanted to hear about ocean acidification’s effect on their coastlines and economies as well as what they can do to adapt.

Could you explain how vital coral reef health is to the world and how greenhouse gases are threatening them?

Coral reefs are both ecologically and economically significant. Not only are reefs beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring, they also support services that generate an estimated $30 to $375 billion per year globally. These services include reef-based fisheries, tourism, medicine and shoreline protection.  We call coral reefs the rainforests of the sea because they host incredible diversity. While they cover less than one percent of the earth’s surface, they support nearly a quarter of all ocean species, many of which depend on reefs for food and shelter. The role of coral reefs in supporting global fisheries is especially important in developing countries where most people rely on reef fish for protein. Fish is the main protein source for one billion people. Fisheries employ around 10 percent of the world’s population, with 90 percent of those jobs being small-scale.

Even if you don’t live near the coast or have never had fish, coral reefs provide you with other services. A medicine you have taken may have been derived from a sponge found on a reef, or your favorite seafood item may rely on coral reefs to hide from predators or to find food.

The vitality of reefs depends largely on the complex structures and topography created by the hard corals themselves. Corals are small, anemone-like animals with symbiotic algae living in their tissues that harden by secreting calcium carbonate. Corals are generally slow growing; most shallow-water corals grow less than one centimeter annually.  This means it takes hundreds of thousands of years to build reefs as structurally complex as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The rate of change in ocean pH and carbonate levels experienced by corals today is much faster than anything experienced in at least the past 55 million and possibly the past 300 millions years, putting the reefs at serious risk.

What does your research suggest as key methods to limiting the effects of climate change on society? Do you believe these methods will be easily adopted in both developed and developing nations?

The only way to slow the rate of ocean acidification is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The entry of CO2 into the ocean is the main cause of the rapid rates of ocean acidification we see today. Therefore the only way to prevent further acceleration of this pH trend is to slow the rate of CO2 entering seawater.  There are currently no geoengineering solutions to slow ocean acidification; they all affect atmospheric warming but not acidification. Since plants and algae capture and store CO2 during photosynthesis, scientists have proposed farming macroalgae to sequester CO2 in the ocean and bring up the pH, thus making it more basic. This may have local impacts on reducing acidity levels, but the global implications are unknown.

Why should policy makers representing non-coastal societies at the COP care about ocean acidification?

Policy-makers in non-coastal societies should care about ocean acidification because it threatens a multitude of diverse resources that the ocean provides. Ocean acidification threatens to alter marine ecosystems and food webs by impacting the biology of organisms, which will likely impose major costs to seafood industries.

It’s important to note that ocean acidification works alongside many other man-made stressors of  the ocean. These stressors include rising temperatures, deoxygenation, rising sea levels, pollution, over-fishing and deep-sea mining.  The ocean has been treated like a vast, endless pool of resources for thousands of years. Now, it is time to treat it as the finite resource it is.

My colleague Natasha Gallo spoke about the phenomenon of ocean deoxygenation at the COP. To our knowledge, this was the first time this other highly important impact of climate change was discussed at a COP. Though the ocean provides up to half of the oxygen we breathe, it is losing oxygen. We’re seeing major expansions of hypoxic (low oxygen) mid-water zones around the world.  Since fish are very sensitive to low oxygen, this causes habitat compression for many fish species, which means they have to move to more oxygenated waters or face death.

Over 1,598 NGOs are admitted as observers to the COP. While you were at the COP, did you have an opportunity to interact or begin interesting dialogue with any environmental NGOs?

Working at the oceans booth that Scripps co-hosted with the Plymouth Marine Lab was a great opportunity to meet with people from different environmental NGOs as well as other organizations from around the world. I had an interesting conversation with a strategist from New Zealand working with the Climate Action Network.  He has been trying to push the New Zealand government to step up their efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. After informing him about ocean acidification, he thought about mitigating ocean acidification as a strategy for reducing CO2 emissions. New Zealand has some economically important fisheries that may be threatened by acidification and deoxygenation.  It was exciting to hear this political strategy develop around the science of ocean acidification. This experience made me realize the vast importance of scientists directly engaging with policy-makers and political activists to come up with creative solutions.  This realization was also reinforced when two of my colleagues and I serendipitously met with the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres.  She was thrilled to hear about our efforts to communicate science at the COP and said that she hopes to see more young scientists engaging with the policy arena. This positive reinforcement from her, along with our own success at the COP, is reason to continue our efforts of bringing young scientists from Scripps and UCSD to future COPs.

How is it different presenting your research to politicians at the COP than it is to scientists? How do you make your case more convincing and comprehensible to a non-scientific public audience? What was, in your opinion, the most difficult part about persuading politicians and their representatives to adopt new measures in their country that would mitigate climate change?

It can be a very daunting and difficult task to speak to policy-makers as scientists. Many scientists don’t even feel that they’re qualified to speak in such policy settings. However after seeing the important role that science can and should play in policy-making at the COP, I am more convinced than ever that these two worlds should intersect more often.

As scientists talking to policy-makers, there is a tendency to want to prescribe policy solutions, when in fact we are only qualified to present compelling scientific evidence that may suggest a policy action.  Recognizing the need for careful messaging and clear communication in policy settings, the Scripps Communications Office offered a free “crash course” in talking to the media and public.  In addition, when we arrived at the COP, we were lucky enough to be taken under the wing of Carol Turley, a senior scientist from the United Kingdom who is an expert communicator and has presented at many COPs.  For her crash course, she had us limit our core messages to three main points. She then walked us down to the press offices in the COP to obtain interviews. Our persistence paid off – we were the only non-press people who actually approached them. After talking to press from around the world, we finally obtained an interview with Reuters, which was then picked up by various online news sources. (A link to the interview can be found here).

Here’s some advice on communicating to policy-makers. You need to use very different strategies when talking to policy makers than when talking to other scientists.  Some strategies we used were being simple, stating our main message first, avoiding scientific jargon and using analogies and stories whenever possible.

Australia adopted a carbon tax in 2012 to limit pollution, but now the country is against it and wants it abolished. What can you say about Australia’s participation in the COP in Poland? What kind of example does it set for what should be done to address climate change?

Australia set a very poor example during the COP.  The Australian government had just transitioned a couple of months before the COP in November, and the new government has shown every intention to dismantle previous efforts to combat climate change. On day two of the COP, the Australian government announced new legislation to repeal the EU carbon cap and trade system (Emissions Trading System), to dismantle the Climate Change Authority (an independent advisory board to the government on climate change), and to dismantle the Climate Energy Finance Corporation (invests in clean energy). The very first item of business in the new Parliament has been to abolish the carbon tax, effective July 1, 2014.  During the rest of the COP, the Australian delegation continued to make it clear that they were not interested in reaching climate change mitigation solutions.  They failed to increase their carbon emissions reduction target, despite pressures from both developing and developed countries.  They also blocked a lot of progress during the Loss and Damage Mechanism (LDM) negotiations. The LDM is designed to give financial aid to developing countries from developed countries to assist in covering costs caused by climate change-related events.  The Australian Government’s resistance to funding the LDM led to a weak outcome for the language of that treaty. All this occurred during the immediate aftermath of the devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan, which severely affected developing countries.

All of these failures on the part of the Australian government earned them a prestigious award, that of the Colossal Fossil. The environmental NGO Climate Action Network gave out this award to the country that did the least to advance climate change mitigation or adaptation during the [Warsaw] COP.

How will developing nations with limited financial access to resources be able to afford new sustainable technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines?

In 2010, the COP in Cancun established the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is intended to raise $100 billion per year by 2020 to fund climate adaptation projects in developing countries. However, since its creation, it has remained more symbolic than literal because no funds have been raised yet.

The Green Climate Fund was intended to meet the goals of climate change mitigation set forth by the UNFCCC, including aid to developing countries. Their mission states that they aim towards “providing support to developing countries to limit or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change, taking into account the needs of those developing countries particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.”

Clearly, there are many challenges in convincing developed countries to give large sums of money to the international community to combat climate change.  There has been some success on the company and non-profit level of increasing capacity in developing countries. We were lucky enough to meet with John Doherty, the Global Development Officer at Earth Networks, whose goal is to offer timely weather information to consumers, governments and enterprises through their WeatherBug brand. John’s role is to help with capacity building in developing countries to allow for prudent severe weather forecasting and warnings.

You have high aspirations of becoming a marine advocate after receiving your Ph.D..  How do you intend to use your experience at the COP to educate the general public about how we as a society can work together to mitigate the effects of climate change?

One of the main goals of going was to bring the COP experience back home in order to give other scientists and the public a sense of what happens at these high level policy meetings. We’re actually doing a public event for the organization 350.org in San Diego on March 6th to talk about our experience. Other public interactions include news articles like this one in the San Diego Union Tribune.  We also created a website, oceanscientists.org, to make the COP experience accessible to the public.

This experience was career altering for me. Attending the COP as a young scientist made me realize the importance of obtaining a marine science Ph.D. and gaining expert-level knowledge for whatever future arena I find myself working in, whether it be policy, academia, media or non-profit work.  Many people can walk around talking about climate change and spewing information but having a Ph.D. shows you are an expert and people are more likely to listen to you and trust you. I was honestly surprised to have been well received as a young, non-Ph.D. scientist at the COP. I had presumed people wouldn’t listen to me because I am still working toward expert-level knowledge. I was surprised by how much I knew and how much people respected my opinion. There is a unique and important role that young scientists and youth in general can play in combating climate change, and this is because we are the future generation. Our voice matters because we will experience the effects of climate change in the future, and it is also our problem to solve. Therefore, I encourage and hope that we can inspire other UCSD students to make their voices heard, because you may just be surprised by who will listen!

Image by DFAT photo library