"Genetics" is a broad field, but this website will focus on the subset of genetics research into selfreplicating biological matter, including strains of viruses and bacteria. There is intensive private sector research in genetics driven by the desire to cure diseases, create superior crops and livestock, and make a wide range of products to enhance our quality of life.
The extinction threat is that someone in a laboratory could modify an existing virus or bacteria to be much more lethal.
Actually, laboratories have already been trying to do this with known viruses such as SARS, swine flu, ebola, HIV, and others in a commercial race to gain a better understanding of these viruses and develop a vaccine. It is common for there to be efforts to create a more virulent form of viruses which spread much quicker in laboratories, for multiple reasons, including so that we anticipate a potential mutation and have a vaccine for that, and so there will be more samples to test despite the slower reproduction of the naturally occurring virus in the laboratory.
In many but not all industrialized countries, the governments require these laboratories to implement safeguards, such as airtight chambers and emergency procedures. However, we are human and there can and will be accidents. In many less developed countries, enforcement is lax. Everywhere, the research includes closely held company secrets so that there is resistance to outside access to information of private sector activities.
As technology advances, so does the power of the individual, and we have already arrived at a time when a sole researcher could modify an existing virus, by accident or by design, to make it extremely lethal and potentially start an extinction event.
Many researchers rationalize, in their own interests, that such a scenario is unlikely because it never before happened in nature. The response is (1) species have disappeared suddenly, possibly due to a naturally mutated virus, and (2) these aren't naturally occurring viruses now, they are technologically tinkered viruses like never before in the history of Earth. There's a first time for everything, and it may be the last time, no second chance, no opportunity to learn from the first experience.
There is clearly the potential for extinction this route, and as technology advances, we are going right down this avenue.
Some of the things we have already done are amazing. We have modified many viruses in laboratories and tinkered with their genes. We have moved genes between species and mass produced products from them. We have genetically modified organisms (GMOs), much more than most people are aware of. (Given the lack of labeling requirements in many places, how much is unreported and hidden for substantial profit, in view of relatively small fines and the low probability of detection?) For example, it's estimated that more than half the world's soybeans are produced by plants which had genes spliced in from other species.
It's unclear just how lethal a naturally occurring virus can be modified to become. If it reproduces quickly to kill rapidly, then society could react by grounding all aircraft and everybody stay home until everyone who had it died. Living in Asia, I have seen how effective a similar policy was in containing SARS (Severe Actute Respiratory Syndrome).
A retrovirus like HIV that takes years to kill is another matter. If it were engineered to spread like the common cold, then by the time we discover its longterm effects, it could have spread all over the world.
In Australia, a virus was introduced to eradicate the red fox, which had been introduced by Europeans and became a serious problem to the Australian ecosystem. The virus introduced made females sterile by causing antibodies against male sperm. The foxes didn't get sick and die, they just stopped reproducing.
Even if there are some survivors, a virus can be modified again to knock off the remainder, or else a new virus introduced.
Viruses usually cannot travel far or for a long time until they become damaged enough by environmental exposure to lose their reproductive abilities. Just how much is a good topic for the forum.
The great influenza virus of 1918 was successfully recovered from a corpse 90 years later by a very careful laboratory ...
Laboratories have done amazing things with viruses over the past 10 years. With further advancement in technology, and the spreading of capabilities worldwide, it's just a matter of time until there is a disaster. It could be by accident, or it could be by design.
Indeed, a virus could be targeted at a particular race.
Genetic engineering has already worked on similar things in the past...
For more information on the risks of genetics, see our Links page.
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