Experiments Involving Genetically Engineered Animals Are Skyrocketing
By Nika Knight
Experiments involving genetically engineered animals have nearly tripled in Germany in the past 10 years, driven by a burgeoning global industry that involves inventing and patenting genetically altered species for scientific research, says a new study commissioned by Germany's Green Party and conducted by the research group Testbiotech.
A GMO mouse with a gene related to hair growth removed from its genome, at left, next to a mouse with an unaltered genome.Wikimedia Commons
"The massive increase in animal testing in the genetics field is unacceptable," Nicole Maisch, the Green Party's parliamentary spokesperson for the protection of animals and consumer policy, told the newspaper Der Westen.
"Particularly when the experiments' usefulness from a medical standpoint is extremely questionable or when the trials have revealed themselves to be unsuccessful," Maisch said, "we must not allow any more animals to be tortured."
The study, which was released Wednesday and shared with Süddeutsche Zeitung and newspapers owned by Germany's Funke Mediengruppe, found that nearly 950,000 animals were subjected to experiments in Germany in 2013 alone and a full third of those involved genetically modified animals.
The genomes of mice, rats and fish are being tinkered with the most, reports Süddeutsche Zeitung, but rabbits and pigs are popular choices, too.
Moreover, Süddeutsche Zeitung notes:
In contrast to conventional animal testing, the research on genetically manipulated animals is especially deadly, says Silke Strittmatter of the organization Doctors Against Animal Experiments: "We can safely assume that up to 54 animals die for the creation of a single genetically modified animal." To achieve the desired outcome, scientists must experiment with many variations, which in many cases involves breeding multiple generations and then killing them. In this fashion, the number of genetically altered animals is increasing, despite the fact that in the last two years, for the first time the number of animals used for traditional experimental trials has fallen.
A race to patent and profit from genetically modified species is driving the growing global market for such creatures, observes the German newspaper: "Researchers patent altered animals, such as "knockout mice" and sign license deals with corporations, which in turn aggressively market the animals to laboratories—as "custom-manipulated rodents," for example."
The newspaper continues:
In the USA, biotech corporations market patented animals aggressively. [Study author Christoph] Then describes a downright "price war." Patents for new genetic engineering techniques then lead to more animal trials. In recent years, patent applications were even submitted for genetically modified primates and great apes—and some of those were approved. It is for this reason that the speaker for the Green faction on genetic engineering, Harald Ebner, is calling for a Europe-wide ban on patents on living things.
Ebner also told Süddeutsche Zeitung that he fears so-called "free trade" deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) will lead to the worldwide dispersal of products from genetically modified animals.
The newspaper observes that "meat and other products from genetically modified animals cannot be sold in Germany. [...] In other countries, however, among other things scientists are experimenting with altering the ingredients of milk by changing the genes of cows. For such experiments, embryos must be genetically altered and then implanted in a surrogate. The Testbiotech study notes that these experiments often involve pain and suffering, as such laboratory animals are frequently killed in order to remove cells or the genetically modified embryo."
It seems other countries have reason to worry, as the U.S. government continues to fight for pro-GMO legislation. Indeed, when President Obama last week signed into law a corporate-friendly GMO labeling bill, he "scratched out the laws of Vermont, Connecticut and Maine that required the labeling of genetically engineered foods," reports AlterNet.
"He also nullified the [GMO] seed labeling laws in Vermont and Virginia that allowed farmers to choose what seeds they wanted to buy and plant," the progressive outlet observes, adding that "for good measure he preempted Alaska's law requiring the labeling of any [GMO] fish or fish product, passed to protect the state's vital fisheries from contamination by recently approved genetically engineered salmon."
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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