It’s an old, tired story: The advocate for genetically modified organisms says, “There’s nothing wrong with genetic manipulation — we do it all the time by selectively breeding our food, livestock, and pets.” The anti-GMO activist says, “Sure, but selective breeding is natural, and splicing DNA from one organism to another is so, not.” Then the rotifer says, “Who’s calling gene splicing unnatural? I’ve been surviving on that alone for literally 60 million years.”
The vast majority of animals rely on sex to maintain a diverse and healthy gene pool. Not so for the rotifer, a type of microscopic creature that lives in puddles and munches on pond scum. Bdelloid rotifers, apparently, have survived without sex for millions of years, instead using borrowed DNA to keep things fresh.
It works like this — rotifers need a watery environment to paddle around in, but sometimes their little piece of puddle dries up. But since they’re resilient little buggers, they just hang out in a sort of stasis under the next rainfall, at which point they rehydrate and reanimate.
But the dry spell caused damage at the cellular level, leaving the little creature with sections of no-good DNA. So they borrow from the environment — grabbing DNA strands they come across in the pond and splicing it in with their own. This genetic material could come from other rotifers, from bacteria or fungi.
The rotifer’s DNA repair mechanism works in a similar way to groundbreaking CRISPR gene editing technology — it gets rid of the bad and replaces with the good.
So it’s all a matter of perspective. A rotifer would probably find genetic manipulation through sex to be wholly unnatural, and a little gross. Borrowing foreign DNA to incorporate into its own? That, it can get behind.
The difference between how rotifers manipulated DNA and how we do it is that humans have self-awareness about what we’re doing and the potential outcomes. For this reason, humans have a duty to carefully consider the ethical, safety, and environmental consequences. This applies to selective breeding, too — monocrop agriculture can hurt global biodiversity, which is bad for species resilience and the planet.
Just don’t say that gene splicing is unnatural, or you might end up with an angry mob of rotifer rights activists on your doorstep.