Naturally Destructive

13 05 2020

By and large, I’m a great fan of nature. There are exceptions of course. Not a big supporter of one or two viruses of recent fame and could happily survive in a universe where domestic cats had never evolved. But otherwise – fully paid-up member of the compost bin owners’ society and trying to do my bit for the green revolution.

I have reasonably firm views on GMOs. (Though as a rational person I like to think I’m always open to persuasion). I accept that humans have artificially guided evolution for thousands of years with the selective breeding of dogs, horses, pretty much all domesticated food animals and crops… and garden flowers. Not to mention ourselves through cultural preferences and transient arbitrary ideas of “beauty”.

The key for me though is that each intermediate state from “found in nature” to “final product” was deemed by Mother Nature to be viable and fit to breed the next generation. It might have been a human-guided process, but Mother Nature implicitly gave it her rubber stamp of approval: “fit to breed”.

Technically speaking any human-bred plant or animal is a GMO as it’s genetics were artificially chosen not by the influence of its natural environment but by human hand (though arguably this is increasingly “the environment” in which most things now exist). Selected for better muscle tone, brighter colours, headier scent, etc.

The modern idea of a GMO though includes the much more insidious toolset of directly adjusting genes within an organism – no breeding required. Just a test tube and a lot of PhDs. Though this might be presented as “short-cutting” the process of having to breed and select from all the intermediate stages, it also removed Mother Nature (who unfortunately isn’t a real scientific agency setting the rules) and her veto from the entire process. No longer do we have even the limited checks and balances of “nature” testing whether an intermediate result is “fit to breed”.

Mules are a great example. They were useful beasts of burden, but nature’s given a big thumbs-down to their ability to breed, effectively causing an evolutionary cul-de-sac (or “bag’s bottom” as we say in English). Any dodgy unforeseen side-effects of creating a mule are prevented from being passed to any future generation.

Modern GMOs can go even further though and take genes from a completely different part of the “tree of life” and insert them in an organism that has had no shared relation for the last billion years or so!

Image Source: Wikipedia

I was horrified a few weeks ago to discover that glow-in-the-dark fish are now commonplace in Canadian pet shops. A 2003 article in NATURE was already ringing alarm bells about the risks of “transgenic” release into the wild.

The GloFish® web site states:

“The fluorescent color in GloFish is produced by an inherited fluorescent protein gene that is passed from generation to generation and creates the beautiful fluorescence that can be seen when looking at the fish. The fluorescent protein genes are derived from naturally occurring genes found in marine organisms.”

Image source: GloFish®

Now please don’t me wrong – I have nothing against GloFish®. They found a marketing niche and exploited a loophole in US regulations to sell a legal product. What bothers me philosophically is that there is no “natural” way this fluorescent protein could get from the unidentified marine organisms (which I assume are not fish, otherwise why not say so?) into the tropical fish. Even with the kinkiest fish sex you can imagine. (No – please don’t.)

Once there though, having side-stepped nature’s checks and balances, the gene now gets a free ride and is passed on with the “legitimate” genes to future generations, and potentially into the wild if accidentally released. These other genes were tested as a package at each and every step for viability by nature/evolution for millennia. This direct gene modification is NOT the same as breeding bigger cows or coloured carrots (actually the orange ones are not the natural colour. The others are – blame William of Orange for that). Nature is not configured to stop the unforeseen consequences of genes artificially introduced this way, in the same way as it is to stop mules breeding. It can’t make an intermediate step sterile (or in this case downright non-viable) if it was never even invoked.

Have these people never read Atwood’s Oryx and Crake?!

Now, I realise that this rather gaudy example is just an edge case and more mundane things like the invention of glasses to allow myopics such as myself to function – and live long enough to breed without walking off a cliff – are just as valid an example of humans meddling in what genes get passed on, but at least for the moment we’re not allowing direct gene manipulation for “better” humans. Come the apocalypse (and the end of opticians) nature will undoubtedly have the last laugh. Nature, I’m sure, was the scientific advisor to the awesome film Gattaca.

I sense I’m treading close to eugenics here, so choose to stop with the thought that ALL humans are bad for the Earth, but I’m confident that she’ll figure out how to get rid of us in the end. Even if it’s only to palm us off on her estranged brother Mars.


Image Source: @astrid_kalt

Believe it or not, before I put finger to keyboard this post was supposed to be about “natural weed killer”. Such is the random nature of human thought. I enjoy gardening, but sometimes the tap roots on more persistent weeds make them harder to get rid of reliably.

I discovered a recipe for home-made weedkiller made from common household substances, so am giving it a try. The added bonus was that one ingredient is vinegar, which Mrs E hates with a vengence. This was a convenient way of removing relatively large quantities of rice vinegar from ancient experiments in sushi-making from the cupboard in one go.

I’ll try and remember to post pictures of this particular human’s hypocritical negative impact on nature as represented by the weeds in my back garden.



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