Optogenetics, More than a “Neat Trick”

This is a fascinating video on a new technique in biological research: optogenetics, or using light to control gene expression or neural activity.

The ability to turn genes or neurons on or off literally with the flick of a switch is very powerful, to say the least.  And, of course, as Spiderman knows, with great power comes great responsibility.  (Jesus knew it too, by the way, Luke 12:48, the Parable of the Faithful Servant.)

I’m not going to say anything bad about this method; it is just more power, which will be subject to the same controls we have always used (be they adequate or inadequate).  But this video does demonstrate something about bioscience in general which always concerns me: the preoccupation with “can we?” over “should we?”  To recall another story: it’s the Jurassic Park question.  Ethics.

Using light to make a mouse run in circles or make a fruit fly try to escape is interesting.  Calling it a “neat trick” displays a strange attitude, however.  Too easy, too simple.  It is a mind-boggling power, to be able to control one specific aspect of an animal’s behavior with a light pulse.  Mind-control is not a neat trick.  A neat trick is making a coin disappear in a box.  Controlling neurons and gene expression is too powerful to just be a “neat trick.”

The use of animals in research is extremely important and must continue, I’m not going to argue with that, however, animals in laboratories should not be used to demonstrate “neat tricks.”  It is a life form, we are using it for the sake of gaining knowledge for helping people, not for the sake of amusement, I hope.  Obviously, tools must be tested to be perfected, so animals must be used before moving on to humans.

Getting a dog to jump through a hoop for a treat is a “neat trick.”  But controlling an animal’s behavior via a light pulse applied to their brain to accomplish the same task of jumping through a hoop would not be a neat trick, it would be a bizarre display of power over life, for the sake of human amusement.  The voluntary dog gets a reward.  The involuntary one gets nothing except brain surgery.  Kinda lame by comparison.  This attitude in science is not a good one, it leads to instrumentalization for the sake of improper ends.

Here’s where I chime in for the solution: more respect for life.  Every life form has its own end, purpose, telos: that is an Aristotelian as well as a Judeo-Christian assumption – it needn’t be argued for on the basis of religion.  We can legitimately interfere with those ends for a good purpose,  like for food or medical research (provided the means are appropriate).  But to interfere for a lower a purpose makes life look cheap, like it is property with no intrinsic value, like an inanimate object (which is exactly how life is treated in factory farms).

The line is a fine one, and I’m not saying it was crossed in the above video, only that the attitude displayed was a warning sign to me.  The speaker probably just wasn’t considering what she was saying.  But that is exactly the point.  It should be considered.


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