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Ethics of genetically engineered octopuses....


Aug 17, 2005
As I embarked on a mental adventure the other day, I started thinking about the how to solve the problem of curbing collecting of sensitive species. It seems that flat-out bans seldom work very effectively (Prohibition, any bans on drugs, etc...) as long as there is a strong market demand. Curbing market demand also seems to seldom work if you simply try to tell people what they should and shouldn't buy. They will end up purchasing what they really want in the end.
SO, that led me to think. What if someone where to simply genetically engineer the "perfect" octopus:
So lets use an illustration. Lets start with something that is relatively easy to breed in captivity like O. bimaculoides with benthic juveniles. One could replace the gene(s) for a single set of chromatophores with photophores, so now we have a bioluminescent bimac. That alone would probably make them fairly popular. In addition, for environmental reasons, we could knock-out a gene that is necessary for the biosynthesis of some essential nutrient. That way, one would have to supplement that nutrient in the diet and if they escaped into the wild there is very minimal chance of them out competeing native cephs. (special octo-food that you have to buy from the breeders might even make the market more viable).
The point is that many things could potentially be done to modify appearance octopuses to make a more marketable ceph, and in turn decrease the pressure on certain wild stocks. My question to all of you reading this is... what would be the ethical implications of such a venture.
(Also, before any jumps on me, I know that untill the ceph genome is sequenced, any of this work would be prohibitively slow, and might even be after such sequencing. However, there are proof-of-concept examples of the things that I have tossed out in other organisms.)
:shock: a Marine Jurassic Park as I recall story the dinosaurs were engineered to be lysine deficient, but when they escaped they targetted lysine rich crops (like soy and no doubt the odd soy munching human!).

Animals that are deficient in some nutrient usually suss out ways to get it......natural salt licks, flora and/or fauna rich in that nutrient etc so I'm not sure it would work.

An interesting idea. I do believe, though, that the impact of captive collection is not much more than a drop in the bucket for the death of cephalopods annually...it isn't so much a case of "there aren't enough", as it is a case of "why are we doing this?"

Perhaps, to turn a phrase of Crichton's, we have started asking ourselves "can I?' rather than, "should I?".
I would look very closely at occys genome before mutating him. a gene that affects life span for example, could also affect the hearts, and cause pretty bad health problems
All very good points, and exactly why I posted this rather than keeping it in my own personal musings...
First, Jean, there is a huge difference between dinosaurs and little octopuses. The purposes is not necessary that an escaped organism cannot survive, but that it will have decreased fitness, and be unable to out-compete native animals for a niche, and thus not become established in the wild. Dinosaurs would presumably have no or very few direct competitors and thus would need to die outright to be controlled effectively. The point I was trying to make, although somewhat ineffectively, is that we have a good handle on qualitites that are characteristic of successful invasive species, and it wouldn't be a huge obstacle to minimize those qualities in our genetically modified octopuses. Early work with GMOs failed to take this into account with disastrous consequences (Japanese makado being a prime example) but more current work with GMOs have used this principle with a VERY high success rate.
Greg, I agree with you wholeheartedly: If there is no pressing need, and such a solution didn't have the absolute best chance of solving the problem, This approach is completely unwarranted. I also agree that yes, the pet trade is a very low cause of mortality in cephs as a whole. What this solution would be more pointed towards is rare cephs that aren't commercially used, such as mimics, wonderpus, and metasepia. As much as it is discussed on this page, it does seem like there is a problem there. However, in that case maybe that means bimacs are a poor choice as a base organism...
Bob, You are completely right, and honestly, there is no way to look at the genome hard enough to completely forsee any possible problems. Really it often comes down to in this sort of work as "try and see". And also, likely any genetic modification is going to come with some sort of fitness trade-off. Theoretically, each current realized genome has reached a sort of peak in the fitness landscape with respect to environment.
Also, thanks for input everyone and not just dismissing the concept out of hand. Such discussion should happen before such an eventuality becomes reality.
Is this not what we have already done with domestic aminmals. Albeit, through genitic breeding but I truly cannot see a great deal of difference.

Jean's point has merit but releasing into the wild is not likely to be a grave concern. Most of our "Kudzu" failures (Jean, it is a plant we brought in from Japan for erosion control in the southern part of the US that has become an uncontrollable weed) have come from INTENTIONALLY introducing quantities of something unnatural to the environment and hoping it copes with just the intended problem. The other fear and proven problem is accidental introduction through shipping contamination but neither of these apply to your creature. There is always fear of someone starting a competition problem by releasing a critter but I am not privy to this ever being the case. However, I have not researched this opinion and may be off base.

There is a fresh water fish currently on the market that has been altered, sells well and has many people upset. I am not sure how I feel about these fish (I don't want or own one). You just don't see this kind of complaint about dog/cat breeding and I can't quite justify the difference in thinking.
NZ has a HUGE problem with introduced pests (accidentally, eg Koi carp, redback spiders, white tail spiders, Undaria seaweed, didymo, pacific oysters, asian date mussels....and intentionally rabbits, gorse, sparrows, possums, sheep, cattle, dogs, cats.......people :biggrin2: the list goes on and on), so any potential threat is treated with an enormous amount of suspicion. The natural environment here, although it looks pristine in many areas, it is extremely modified.

Koi Carp it is thought were both accidentally released from ornamental ponds during floods and intentionally released by folks who got fed up with them. I can just see some ill informed person buying an engineered octopus, getting bored with it or runnning out of funds to feed it and just releasing it......this happens with cats and dogs all the time.

The difference with cat/dog breeding is that it is just that, selective breeding we are not tampering with the genome in a lab (to be sure I think we've gone waaaaaay too far in this selective breeeding and there are now some major health issues with these animals, but that's a whole 'nother thing!).

While octopus would have natural predators here (I actually meant the dinosaurs as a bit of a joke..........I'm sooooo misunderstood..cue violins :boohoo: ) they are resourceful and I suspect better than many others at avoiding predation.

Jean: You forgot stoats and weasels which someone, for reasons that utterly elude me, decided to bring over here. More relevantly there was from early on some serious attempts to introduce viable breeding stocks of inshore marine fish that were familiar to the colonists such as flatfish. I can't recall off hand if some of them produced permanant populations but I have a feeling some of them did.

I think that replacing chromatophores with photophores would succeed in a) making it more popular and b) reducing it's wild fitness (the more the poor thing tried to camoflage itself the more it would stand out).

However if it was commercially marketed it wouldn't be rare (unless you kept it rare and vastly inflated the price), which I think is part of the attraction to some collectors (the reason people keep trying (and alas succeeding) to smuggle rare skinks out of NZ :mad: ).

More successful would be to either use captive breeding and release to enhance the wild populatons to reduce rarity, or for there to be a conspiracy of cephalopod specialists so that whenever someone showed of thier new prized specimen they were met with "Oh, one of those, they're a dime a dozen" :wink:

On the other hand, if someone were to go the whole hog and produce, to pull an example out of thin air, a tree octopus , interest in anything so boring as marine cephalopods could drop massively.

Alternately, for a massive project, modify them ALL to have a tetrodotoxin bite and ceph collection would be restricted to the REALLY serious:madsci:
dwhatley;91350 said:
Is this not what we have already done with domestic aminmals. Albeit, through genitic breeding but I truly cannot see a great deal of difference.

Theres a HUGE difference. Genetic breeding is combining two speiceis that have already passed the test of natural selection. while with genetic modification, the responsibility is placed entirely with man, and none with nature. it is fine to crossbreed two dogs, becuase the breeds are enough alike not to have any adverse affects, the hair gene won't affect the heart gene, but take an octopus and give it the inteligence of say, a dolphin, and you have a recipe for disaster. a heart with dolphinlike traits wouldn't do well in a cephy body.

Other octopi are a different matter however, but I would suggest baby stepps. if you want to give a joubini the lifespan of a giant octopus (something i would like to see done.:smile: ) you would take it step by step, substituting genes from similar octopi until you get the right result
Cairnos;91377 said:
Jean: You forgot stoats and weasels which someone, for reasons that utterly elude me, decided to bring over here.

I didn't really, I just thought the list was long enough (you forgot ferrits!)


This obviously doesn't include the mammals,plants, inverts etc. Landcare NZ estimates that there are currently 2000 invasive inverts in NZ!

I just don't think we need another!



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Cairnos;91377 said:
On the other hand, if someone were to go the whole hog and produce, to pull an example out of thin air, a tree octopus , interest in anything so boring as marine cephalopods could drop massively.

Shorter and cheaper equipment list, for one thing. :wink:
Imagine what this could entail, making an octopus smarter and giving it a better lifespan could reinvent marine and perhapse (and this is getting a bit farfetched) terrestrial warfare:shock: . we would have a bomb squad like nothing anyone had ever seen. Being capable of getting into a hole an inch wide would be a huge asset for stealth missions. weve trained dolphins. with the right genetic modifications, why not octopuses.
You directly mentioned the Koi escaping from pet keeping humans. Are any of the others of this nature? My point was not that we have not all introduced species without understanding the complexity of native habitat (either by intent or by trading contamination) but that creatures created as pets are far less likely to be environmental problems.

I would expect the ferretts also to be of this nature. That problem was solved here (GA specifically, but they never propogated in the wild here before they were controlled) with relative ease once concerns were brought to light. Allowing only sterile animals as pets into an environment with very strict breeding licenses is, IMO, one of the safest and easiest ways to accomodate this problem. Allowing only males is another but not as safe, especially when sexing an animal could be difficult.

I think my point is that breeding an animal (by gengeneering or by cross-breeding) to become a pet seems to be an acceptable alternate to removing animals from the wild. To get this to work, the pet must be better suited than the original to increase their attraction. Otherwise, the WC is less expensive and continues to have more alure. How many people attempt to keep a Dingo? I know some do but it certainly does not endanger the species (even if some wished it otherwise :hmm: ).
Unfortunately ferrets, stoats and weasels were intentionally introduced into NZ to eradicate mice, rats and rabbits. Instead half of NZ's native bird species are now locally extinct, including some endemics. :mad: