BOULDER, Colo.—“Don't eat Frankenfoods!” screamed the sign of a protester marching this summer in Boulder, Colo., a hub of environmental activism.
Yet the same activists who are quick to warn the world about messing with the DNA of plants have remained noticeably silent on DNA modifications to another species of life: humans.
Public protests against genetically modified corn, soybeans and other agricultural products have been commonplace for the past two years in cities throughout the United States and Europe. Environmentalists charge that scientists are moving too fast and don't know all the future ramifications of engineered foods that can cross-pollinate and forever alter the world's ecology.
Strangely, they seem unconcerned about the same issues when it comes to “engineering” people.
“Mainstream environmentalists will be more concerned about genetic modifications to plants than they will regarding similar procedures involving human beings,” says Brian Andreja, a renowned environmental activist and former national chairman of the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice Task Force. “One problem with today's environmental movement is that it has a real blind spot for human issues. And that will become very apparent if activists take to the streets about modified corn, and remain silent on genetically modified kids.”
Gentically Modified Kids
Such kids exist already. Sixteen children were born in the spring of 2000 after scientists at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine at St. Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey combined mitochondrial DNA from eggs of young donors with the eggs of older women who were having trouble getting pregnant.
The New Jersey scientists theorized that the imported mitochondrial DNA would improve the chances of attaining a pregnancy. Mitochondria are tiny structures containing genes that float around inside the cell away from the cell's nucleus, where the vast majority of the genes reside.
The mixture of human DNA marks the first known case of what scientists refer to as “human germ-line modification.” Genetically, the children each have two mothers and one father.
The experiment was conducted quietly, without input from the general public or the broader scientific community. It was made public last spring, as most of the children were celebrating their first birthdays, in the British journal Human Reproduction.
To date, the St. Barnabas experiment and the genetically modified children that resulted have received underwhelming coverage by mainstream media in the United States. However, scientists at the Institute of Science in Society in London denounced the genetic modifications. They equated the developments to the advent of nuclear weapons, and warned that the research “amounts to changing the gene pool of the human species.”
The London scientists also charged that as teen-agers the engineered humans may suffer from seizures, strokes, optic atrophy, neuropathy, myopathy, cardiomyopathy, and other diseases associated with “mitochondrial heteroplasmy”—the technical term for mutations that occur in mitochondrial DNA.
Nobody's debating the fact that mitochondria are passed down from one generation to the next. So if these genetically modified children live to reproduce, their scientifically altered genes will be spread among off-spring, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and on down the line.
The Bishops' Adviser
“Once you start altering the gene pool, it's altered forever, unless all of these children die before they reproduce,” said Dave Buyers, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Science and Human Values.
Like most in the scientific community, Buyers has heard little about the New Jersey experiment. He has heard far more public outcry and concern, in the United States and in Europe, regarding DNA modifications to crops.
Crop modifications have become such an issue, in fact, that Buyers and his committee were asked by the bishops’ conference to prepare a full report that answers concerns raised by environmentalists. He has not been asked officially to review the New Jersey experiment.
Buyers says he'll release a report in coming weeks that recommends that genetic modifications to plants go forward “cautiously.” The bishops’ committee concludes that DNA modification to crops may result in better health and nutrition for the poor and famished. However, the committee also suspects environmentalists have raised legitimate concerns about cross-pollination that could result in new organisms harmful to the eco-system.
But despite obvious common ground on the issues of DNA modifications to humans and plants, Buyers doesn't expect any help from environ-mentalists regarding the many potential nightmare scenarios surrounding DNA modifications to human eggs.
“A lot of the people who are environmentalists are pro-choice,” said Buyers. “And if genetic modifications to human eggs can improve female fertility, then it's suddenly an enormous and complicated social issue for them. In a logical world, one who worries about genetic modifications to corn would worry about genetic modifications to humans. This is not a logical world.”
The Green Mindset
Carolyn Bninski, a professional activist with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Colorado, emerged early on as a leader in the crusade against genetically modified crops. Bninski says she's alarmed by genetic modifications to humans. Crop modifications, however, scare her more.
“There are a handful of humans who have been modified, but there are millions and millions of acres of modified agricultural products out there,” Bninski says. “So there are some of the same concerns, but there are some major differences.”
The Sierra Club's Brian Andreja agrees with Buyers that most environmental activists are pro-abortion, and he suspects they will dismiss concerns about genetic modifications to eggs as a “right-to-life” issue. Anderja says humans messing with other humans is seldom as alarming to environmental activists as humans messing with plants or animals.
“If a chemical plant is belching toxins into the air, mainstream environmental activists will talk about the harm it's doing to humans,” Andreja said. “But that's mainly just to get neighborhood support behind the cause. Their true concern is that the toxins may harm the ecosystem of plants and animals. So environmentalists will consider human genetic engineering as related to plant engineering, but they'll dismiss it because it's not their bag of beans.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.