Tuesday, April 1, 2014

An ethical application of transgenics

In a recent post about some of my ethical misgivings about transgenic technologies, I posited that when considering the widespread introduction of a new transgenic product, we should consider any benefits it may offer against the fundamental imposition on nature, and on people's free will as custodians of that nature, represented by the irreversible insertion of a new gene, a new trait, into a crop population.  A new transgenic "event", as innovations in genetic engineering are called, would have to offer something really good in order to justify such a breach of the world's genome.  In my desire to do something constructive with my convictions, I have been searching for a really worthwhile application of genetic engineering, and I believe I recently found one.

I entered in contact with a researcher named Dr. Faroud Ghorbani, of an institute called Science for Moral Development, based in Beirut.  He is doing some very exciting research to address alcoholism and all the pain it causes in people's lives.  As someone from the Great Lakes region of the US, with its very high levels of drinking and alcoholism, I have seen alcohol impair and destroy too many lives, so Dr. Ghorbani's research really spoke to me. 

Inspired by Bitrex, the substance added to antifreeze and rubbing alcohol to make them taste bitter for any pets or children that might find them, Dr. Ghorbani set out a few years ago to use the same principle to limit people's drinking.  The way alcohol is made is that brewer's yeast exudes alcohol as a waste product when it consumes sugar.  If one could modify this yeast genetically such that its waste alcohol also contained low levels of a foul-tasting substance, the resulting beverages would gain an increasingly upleasant taste with every additional drink, and thus naturally limit people's intake.  A drug that acts in a similar fashion is called Antabuse.  It produces almost immediate hangover-like effects in anyone who drinks even a bit of alcohol.  However, Dr. Ghorbani aims to avoid such violent effects on drinkers, while simultaneously addressing one of Antabuse's prime limitations; the people who really should be taking Antabuse, even those to whom it is prescribed, often don't take their medication, because they prefer avoiding its unpleasant effects as opposed durably overcoming their alcoholism.

Much of the exact mechanism of Dr. Ghorbani's work, which goes by the provisional name of Nurcohol, is a proprietary secret, but he has been kind enough to share some details with me as to how it could be applied.  The roll-out plan is as follows:
  • Start publicizing Nurcohol transgenic yeast to governments in countries where alcohol is legally forbidden except among the Western expatriate population.  If even one country mandates use of Nurcohol for its limited in-country production of alcohol for expatriates, it will set a precedent many others may follow.  The benefit to the adopting country would be that they could avoid drunkenness and alcoholic violence among the expat populace, as well as the spillover of such problems in the local population that manages to obtain and consume alcohol.  Without this government-level obligation, obviously no private brewer will willingly replace its existing production practices with Nurcohol.
  • Once Nurcohol establishes a presence in a number of countries, it will naturally expand.  Part of the novelty of the Nurcohol transgenic event is that the yeast are a prolific line that outcompetes most yeast used in brewing today.  This means that, after a critical mass is reached of surrounding adopters, all other brewing will also undergo a gradual insertion of the Nurcohol transgene, through natural biological spread.
  • The end goal is that all alcohol consumed in the world will be Nurcohol.  The rich brewing cultures of Europe and North America can remain intact, but their product will now intrinsically contain a natural limit that prevents consumers from going over the edge with too much drinking at a sitting.  It is a way of advancing the uncontroversial goal of reduction in alcoholism, while still respecting the cultures in which moderate consumption of  alcohol plays an important social role.

 For more information on the Science for Moral Development laboratory and Dr. Ghorbani's groundbreaking work, you can visit their website here.

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