Gene drives for the Ganges

The Ganges or the Ganga as its known in India is both an important symbol in Indian religious culture and a major source of water (over 25%) and supporter of local economy. It is considered and worshiped as a mother goddess in form of a fair-complexioned beautiful woman wearing a white crown with a water lily, holding a water pot in her hands, and riding her pet crocodile.

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Moreover she is a symbol of fertility, abundance and purity and will even wash away your karma. The ultimate dream of every Hindu is to die in the holy city of Benaras and have his ashes dispersed in the Ganges, doing so is an easy shortcut to moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death). Even the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, the poster boy of secularism had asked to have his ashes dispersed in the holy Ganges.

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In reality the situation is quite ironic. The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Throughout its 2500 km route the Ganges passes through several big cities which dump lethal amounts of pollutants and fecal matter in the river. The fecal bacteria is 10-15 times more than the permissible limit. The river is flooded with heavy metals from pesticides dumped into it from industrial and agricultural activities.

Apart of pollution, the Ganges also suffers from a very hampered ecosystem due to river pollutants and increase in hydel power plants in the upper parts of the Ganges. The Ganges river dolphin, one of the only 3 freshwater dolphins left in the world is now a severely endangered species with only about 1,800 left in the entire Ganges-Brahmaputra rivers.

Dead turtle on a polluted stretch of the Ganges River, Varanasi, India.

Efforts to clean up the river have been undertaken since the past 3 decades but have yet to be fruitful. The Modi government had allocated a budget of 3 Billion dollars for the clean Ganga campaign but we are yet to see any results.

The govt has proposed a two fold plan of action, to clean the river of it’s contaminants and to rejuvenate it by restoring the ecosystem.

Another lesser known issue which has severely affected the river ecosystem is of invasive species. Foreign invasive species of fish and certain crops has damaged not only the ecosystem but also the local economy which is heavily dependant on fishing and farming. The most invasive and dangerous of this is the red bellied Piranha. This fish is native to the Amazon river basin and is alien to the Ganges ecosystem. Researches have speculated that it could have been introduced to the Ganges through boats carrying the fish for aquarium trade.

This is the space where Gene drives could play a role.

What if Gene drives could rejuvenate the dying dolphin population in the Ganges.

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The Ganges river dolphin is a carnivore which can feed on invasive fish species to curb their increasing population. What if we can identify genes which result in birthing fraternal twins and drive it through the dolphin population to produce a pair of male and female dolphins? Dolphins have a gestation period of 9 months which makes it rather unsuitable for gene drives but if we can double the reproduction rate for every gestation cycle, results can be achieved much faster. Of course there will have to be way to mute the gene drive after a few generations to avoid over population.

Gene drives could also be used to curb the increasing red belly piranha population.

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The red bellied Piranha breeds every year during the monsoon and lays thousands of eggs which mature in a matter of two weeks. This would be a very effective species for implementing Gene drives given their rapid breeding cycle. You could introduce Gene drives to produce only male offspring thereby curbing further increase in the population due to a lack of female mates for breeding.

The life span of a red bellied Piranha is 10 years. This is where increasing predator dolphin population come into the equation. The dolphins can pray on the remaining male piranhas thereby wiping out the entire species in a few years time.

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Synthetic biology_3

For the third class we did a quick mind mapping exercise to come up with directions for the final project.

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I’m happy with some of the directions that I got. The top four –

1. BioChips
As a speculative design exploration, I’m trying to ask if we can engineer integrated bacterial circuits. What if a piece of DNA was exposed to conditions that will make it randomly mutate every time it tries to repair itself? Could such a setup be used to make a true random number generator? can we design a transistor with engineered bacteria which responds differently to voltage? What would biological versions of common electronic/electrical components look like?

2. Designer baby vs prolonged death
Genetically enhanced humans is a topic that often comes up when discussing bio technology. I can’t decide which is more grave, designer babies or its evil twin, prolonged death. I am more terrified of the latter. Through this speculative exercise I wanna try and answer questions like what is the optimum age to die? And in that case, what is the most pleasant way to die if death is far removed from natural biological processes? What kind of products and services will evolve around it? how will it change our mourning rituals?

3. Scavenger DNA
Can we engineer our DNA or gut bacteria to help us digest plastic?

4. Embodied brand experience
Smell is often regarded as a powerful branding tool. It creates a more enriched and memorable experience which helps in brand recall. But what if the future of branding lies in engineered bacteria? The gut-brain-axis is a well researched and proven subject concerning a link between gut microbiota and the brain/mood. Could environmental microbiome be engineered to deliver a specific brand experience? Do businesses have the right to invade our body and mind to get us hooked? Where do we draw the line?

Synthetic biology

For my very first class of Citizen science: Biotechnology we had to blindly pick chits from a randomized pool of topics which would be our subject of research for this course. I picked synthetic biology, or rather it picked me!

After spending an entire day watching simplified Youtube videos and reading popular science articles on synthetic biology, I can finally claim to have gotten my head around the subject and some of the jargon necessary to understand and communicate it. I feel I am now equipped to take on more serious literature and scientific papers.

Any discussion around synthetic biology and/or genetic engineering seldom takes place without touching upon ethics and necessary regulations around the technology and of course “designer babies!”. I am more interested in speculating on parallel applications of this technology than to really have an opinion on it’s ethics and practical concerns. After all the motivation behind synthetic biology is ethically positive, at least in the realm of therapeutics and nourishment rather than enhancement! The reality is that there are certain urgencies which are far more grave than the unclear ecological implications and potential risks with this technology. It is tempting to attack these urgencies with a piece of tech that shows promise than to fully think through its implications. But is it even possible to fully think through its implications without implementing it? Who would have imagined the internet when the first transistor was engineered?!

I am also pondering over how this technology could reflect in design and in-turn in our day to day life of using products. If we circumvent all the sensational “hot topics” around this technology and imagine a regular day in future, maybe 70 years from now, where synthetic biology is mainstream and has already proven to be immensely successful in treating several diseases; A future where men never go bald and everyone on the planet has enough food, what would our mundane day-to-day life look like? If biotech creates a market for new materials then how would it impact manufacturing and advertising and how will these new methods affect the way our everyday products look and function. What would our toothbrush look like? or the humble bar of soap? what kind of underwear will we be wearing? how would we redesign kitchen tools to work with new forms of food? how will it alter some of our everyday rituals like skin care and hygiene or using contraception?

These may not be very glamorous topics to discuss but certainly very important. The mundane everyday life is the grand reality for most of us and is directly related to a person’s sense of well-being. I may explore more along this track through the semester.