Thursday, August 25, 2016


 DNA manipulation

DNA REVOLUTION is the title of an interesting update on the topic by Michael Specter in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic, pages 30-55.  The prospects of using CRISPER, for genetically modifying organisms such as mosquitoes, was discussed along with the need for understanding the benefits and dangers of such genetic manipulation.  The article following, Science vs. Mosquitoes, by Cynthia Gorney, on pages 56-59 of the same issue helps demonstrate the positive value such genetic manipulation could have.

GMO’s, or genetically modified organisms, are often assumed to be dangerous when they occur in the food chain.  Although they could be made so, they also can be harmless as food.  A high level of safety as food can be achieved if goals and procedures are appropriate.  The speed of developing beneficial traits can be much greater than with conventional breeding programs.  Waiting for natural selection to produce useful natural variants through evolution is not an assured way of getting new useful variants in our lifetime.

Some possible benefits of genetic engineering of food organisms

Greater yield and/or better adaptation to agricultural processes and environmental conditions may be expedited by finding useful genes for transfer from other organisms unlikely to interbreed naturally.  More success may be found by transferring genes from different strains of the same species.   Examples of expected benefits include drought resistance, stronger stems to resist breakage due to wind or heavy rain, resistance to disease organisms and insects, higher ratio of edible parts versus other structural parts, higher nutrient content, and improved flavor or other attributes.

The uniformity achieved by planting hybrid seed for crops might possibly be accomplished by genetic engineering.  The reduced variation in size and shape of plants makes it much easier to effectively harvest them by machines.

Some possible hazards of genetic engineering of organisms.

Every engineered organism released into the environment has the potential to disrupt the ecological balance achieved by natural populations in much the same way an invasive species or introduced organism may disrupt the balance.  Just as with introduced species, sometimes we like the result.  But the potential for disaster is what we fear.  There is usually no reset button we can push to start over without the disastrous introduced organism.

The relative simplicity and/or ease with which genetic manipulation can be done makes it possible for laboratory errors or contamination to result in release of dangerous GMO’s into the environment.

One of the greatest fears that made pioneers of genetic engineering pause and help put safety procedures in place with strict containment and decontamination procedures was the inadvertent release of normally benign organisms containing toxins of disease organisms.

A fear that terrorists might inadvertently destroy the world, with release of lethal organisms that do not recognize boundaries separating friends from foes, could be disastrous for civilization as we know it.  The suicidal mentality projected to that scale seems unlikely, but we seem to get a foretaste of it in past terrorism events.

Molecular biologists initiated standards for recombinant DNA research beginning over 40 years ago.  Containment and other standards were a feature incorporated in federal research grants as a consequence.  But the tremendous progress in the field has simplified the process so that it is feasible for individuals to undertake projects outside of grant supported research programs and regulated facilities.

Ecological considerations.

The success of engineered species could make their use so prevalent that related native ones might not survive.  The diversified gene pool of native species is conducive to some surviving both new and old strains of fungi, bacteria, and viruses.  If a new insect pest or a disease develops for the engineered species it could spread very rapidly through all the closely adjacent populations of it.

Diversity of species is high in most undisturbed natural communities.  As the area of a natural community is reduced, diversity is usually reduced as well.  The interdependence of species is shown by the loss of one species causing the demise of species dependent on that species.  Even predators can help preserve their prey species by keeping their numbers at reasonable levels.  Reasonable levels include population levels that do not destroy their own food supply and make infectious disease transmission more of a certainty.

The web of life encompasses more than many appreciate, but it should not be ignored.

Ethical considerations.

Genetic engineering is here.  We should insist that benefits clearly outweigh the penalties and risks of each project and that no victims are trampled in our blind enthusiasm.  Are there some things that should not be attempted?

Consider the pesky mosquitoes.  Yes, they have killed millions by their role in transmitting malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases.  Does their value in the food chain, for bats and swallows, fish and many other aquatic organisms as well as possible role in plant pollination, mean they should not be eliminated?  They probably do not play an essential role in survival of most, or perhaps all, of those organisms; that makes the targeting of particular mosquito species easier to advocate, especially using CRISPER if it leaves no toxic residues.

Presumably, CRISPER includes improved techniques for controlling mosquitoes by targeting only the species that are vectors of importance in disease transmission.  A few decades ago targeted DNA adjustments of male mosquitoes, producing only males in their offspring which would then only produce males also, was demonstrated as a way of eliminating a species in a limited study.  Since only females feed on blood needed to produce viable eggs, blood feeding and disease transmission ends.  The result would seem to be one of the least disruptive control mechanisms possible.

Because engineered species may affect other nations directly or indirectly, international agreement should be obtained if they have not already done so.  The United Nations would be a proper entity to provide oversight by establishment of an appropriate commission or process.  Genetic engineering of one's own cells for cancer treatment would be an example of an exempt activity if viral vectors are not part of the process.

I would suggest praying for divine guidance be a personal matter in our philosophical pluralistic society, although it is much needed.  Fortunately, all major elements of our society share most values in their moral codes; peace, personal freedom for all, save our environment, and help those in need seem to be givens.

Joseph Engemann      Kalamazoo, Michigan        August 25, 2016

Tuesday, August 2, 2016



It seems like this is an election campaign unlike others.  Many of the issues are the same, but in some ways they seem to have switched political parties. Both claim the high ground of truth, social responsibility, fiscal responsibility, and other good qualities with the hope you will think the other party lacks such good judgement.  The problems we face do not seem to be things that will yield to quick fixes.

Rev. William Barber

He made a point in the Democratic convention and the following evening on CNN that LOVE is the solution to many problems.  He was inspirational is stating that health care, education, and many such issues are moral issues and both political parties should support them whether liberals or conservatives.

I found his message to be in the mold of Martin Luther King’s, although MLK had a much softer delivery.  Today, I hope, few would disagree with his message of the dignity and rights of all people regardless of labels given them.  Jobs and health care can do a lot for the eventual cure of the problems generated by past inequities.  I hope he can get his message to everyone.


The party and campaign computer systems that were hacked, presumably by Russian hackers, were given a sinister interpretation by some commentators.  I think is more likely that they wanted a better understanding of whomever they would be dealing with post-election.  It does, however, demonstrate the capability to be destructive if they so choose.  I presume the potential for hacking is more widely distributed than just to Russia or the United States.


Banning guns is not likely, but keeping assault rifles legal to appease the NRA is poor policy.


The plight of the family in Texas, on one of the convention programs or subsequent news coverages, illustrates the importance of bringing long-term established families into citizenship acquisition programs, an important step.  She was Hispanic by virtue of the Mexican border being moved south years ago and making the region part of Texas (an over-simplification, but we need a more humane approach to the problems).  

Economic Issues

Trickle-down economics has not work as envisioned.  Low tax rates for the super-wealthy do not help the economy.  The wealthy would benefit more from full-employment and reasonable profits.  Unions need enough strength to help workers compete with the legislative care provided select businesses and wealthy segments of society.  The runaway costs of medical care might be held in check if drug costs and health care administration costs were not so inflated.  The ineptitude of congress for approving budgets to prevent Medicare fraud is part of the runaway cost cause.

Abortion and drugs

The moral aspect of capital punishment, abortion, and drugs are divisive when the solutions infringe on the religious views of some.  It is unfortunate when extreme positions are advocated by either of the parties.  Some are then conscience bound to become one-issue voters and then may consequently support otherwise objectionable policies.


I experienced great discomfort in my youth when a heard some political candidates demeaning their opponents party.  So it is nothing new and we survive the extreme accusations and distortions that rouse the crowds.  Who started it?  Does it matter if both participate?

[some material deleted 11/13/16]

Joe Engemann      Kalamazoo, Michigan      August 2, 2016