A man with smallpox circa 1912. Click for source.

In 1721, a small pox epidemic was ripping through the colonial city of Boston.

Cotton Mather, a Reverend and Royal minister, convinced the physician Zebadiah Boylston to perform an arcane medical procedure on two slaves and Mather's own son. The procedure, called "variolation," involved piercing the skin of the patient with needle that was contaminated with small pox. This involved cutting the skin or causing an abrasion on the patient, then applying infectious fluid from a small-pox pustule. In other cases small-pox scabs were first dried, and then rehydrated and coated onto the inoculating instrument.

Mather wasn't the first to try this procedure - the earliest definitive evidence of the practice is from 15th century China, though other accounts date the practice even earlier. Mather learned of the practice from an African slave, but had difficulty convincing physicians to try it. The only university-trained doctor in the city, William Douglass, refused and excoriated Mather for trying. Douglas was wary for good reason - variolation involves intentionally infecting someone with a live virus, and at the time the dose of the inoculum was difficult to control (few people were even aware of bacteria, let alone viruses, and the germ theory of disease would not even have experimental evidence until almost 100 years later). Variolation is not like a modern vaccine - patients would contract small-pox, but the hope was that it would be a mild form, and would prevent natural infection that could be deadly. However, it ran a serious risk of giving someone full-blown infectious small pox. And Small pox is a terrifying illness - it kills almost a third of those afflicted and leaves many of the survivors horribly scared.

Thankfully, Boylston was largely successful, and continued to perform the procedure beyond his initial three subjects. Other citizens of Boston were horrified. They feared that the practice could make the epidemic worse (not an unfounded fear) and kill thousands of people. Others worried (again, with justification), that the procedure could transfer other disease like syphilis. One angry man even tried to assassinate him. Another threw a bomb into the window of Cotton Mather.

Ultimately, most of Boylston's patients survived the epidemic, while nearly 6,000 people (half the city's population at the time) contracted the disease, and about 15% of those died. Later, Edward Jenner would use the principal behind variolation to develop the first true vaccine for small-pox, and in 1980, the disease was eradicated from the face of the Earth.


The Wright Brothers' Plane (click for source)

In 1903, a man lifted off from the ground in a heavier-than-air machine flying under its own power.

I'm no historian, but it seems as if humans have been dreaming about flight as long as there have been birds and dreams. According to the fount of all knowledge, the Chinese were making kites over 2000 years ago, and the ancient greeks made mechanical birds. Humans have even been flying (or at least gliding) for quite a while, strapping themselves to gliders or jumping into baskets under balloons, but the real advance came in the early 20th century when Orville and Wilbur Wright (or Gustav Whitehead?) built the first powered, controllable heavier-than-air flying vehicle.

This first aeroplane was crap - it traveled less than 10 miles per hour (and likely only worked because it was flying into a 30mph headwind), and was incredibly difficult to control. Even a decade later, when European nations first started using planes in combat, they were incredibly unsafe - even skilled pilots were frequently killed in crashes. The best fliers could not compete with failing engines or even inclement weather, and the death toll was outrageous.

Of course, these days air travel is incredibly safe, and has changed the face of the globe.


A schematic for the production of recombinant DNA. (click for source)

In 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen artificially transferred a gene between two species of bacteria.

Later the same year, they successfully transferred a bacterial gene into a frog embryo, showing that the same gene could function in organisms from different kingdoms. In the last 35 years, our ability to manipulate life has proceeded at a staggering pace. The technology Cohen and Boyer pioneered is now commonplace in labs all over the world. In fact, later this afternoon I'm going to use enzymes from two different species of bacteria and another enzyme from a species of archaea to hook one piece of a human gene to a piece of a rat gene, then make copies using E. coli and then use a human cell line to make a virus that will integrate that my new gene combo into a type of mouse cell. It's exhausting when you write it out like that, but this procedure is actually trivial.

Of course, others are using similar technology not in a lab to make experimental tools, but to create food crops that will end up on tables. This worries a lot people. Proponents of the technology point to current breeds of genetically engineered crops can resist fungal or insect pests, resist certain herbicides, or even increase nutrient production in staple crops. Many argue that further development of the technology will help reduce water use, or produce higher yields on smaller amounts of land. Opponents argue that using this technology in food is dangerous, might produce new allergens (see my take on that fear here), or somehow damage the environment.

And besides, say some critics, the technology isn't event that good anyway:

Breeding continues to outpace GE and likely will continue to do so, and agroecology is much better at addressing many of these issues, especially over-reliance on scarce resources and pesticides, and resilience in the face of climate change[...]

Breeding, which continues to be more successful for all types of properties that [Mark] Lynas mentionsdrought tolerance, increased yield, nutrient enhancement, pest resistance, and morecosts about a million dollars per trait. Failure of GE traits, such as virus-resistant sweet potatoes in Africa, needs to be considered more seriously as one possible explanation for the dearth of available GE traits so far.

Looking at the Wright Brothers' plane, I wonder if any spectators remarked, "That thing only goes 10 miles per hour, clearly traveling by steam engine is superior." I know that some policy makers in Britain after WWI (I'm reading a biography of Winston Churchill that talks about this) thought that the airplane was not worth investing in, and Churchill himself (despite being a flying enthusiast and founder of the Royal Air Force) thought that airplanes would never be able to sink a battleship and would have limited usefulness in combat.

Clearly, Dr. William Douglas thought the dangers of variolation were not worth the risk.

What will we say in 100 or 200 years about the fears associated with genetic engineering of food crops? Surely, some of the fears may be founded, others are probably spurious. I applaud anyone that's fighting to change our agricultural system or strengthen health and safety regulation, but those efforts should be focused on outcomes, not the technology. Conventional breeding is certainly capable of producing new allergens or posing new health risks. Organic farming can be done using monoculture, with heavy pesticide use and in unsustainable ways. Let's push to improve the sustainability of farming regardless of the technology used to do it.