“The survey’s most widely accepted use of genetic intervention of animals involves mosquitoes,” wrote authors of the report, Cary Funk and Meg Hefferon. “Seven in ten Americans believe that genetically engineering mosquitoes to prevent their reproduction and therefore the spread of some mosquito-borne diseases would be an appropriate use of technology.”
An alternative reading might be that Americans just hate mosquitoes.
The poll measures where 2,537 adults stand on the topic of genetically engineering animals when it comes to existing and developing applications. In close second, after curbing mosquito populations, 57 percent of Americans support using genetic engineering to grow organs or tissue in animals for human transplants.
Respondents were conscientious about the potential risks of biotechnology to humans, animals and ecosystems. The most highly reported objection to genetically engineering mosquitoes is that it would mess with “nature and the natural balance of things,” raised by 29 percent of respondents. Eight percent say they fear “messing with God’s plan.”
“Nature is a balance and every time man interferes with it, it doesn’t turn out well,” one individual told researchers.
Individuals with strong scientific backgrounds tended to be more supportive of biotechnology than those with little knowledge of the topic.
Other questions gauged support of “the creation of more nutritious meat for human consumption,” “restoring an extinct animal species from a closely related species,” and “use of technology to genetically engineer aquarium fish to glow using a fluorescence gene,” but none gathered more than 40 percent of respondents’ support.
While 77 percent of Americans consider creating glowing fish beyond their comfort zone, this is actually a common use of the technology.
“It’s frivolous,” a respondent told researchers. “Technology should be used to help people, animals and the environment, not put on a glow show.”
Since 2003, GloFish has been marketing zebra fish engineered with fluorescence genes. In addition to lighting up dark dentist offices, a number of scientists have also used the patented fish to study the impacts of pollutants on fish biology, according to a review published in the journal Zebrafish.
As other applications for genetic engineering in animals emerge, public opinion will shift.
“Emerging developments in animal biotechnology raise new social, ethical and policy issues for society to grapple with. This is our first look at public reaction to animal genetic engineering,” said Funk, also the director of science and society research at Pew. “The study is part of our ongoing research about how people make sense of emerging developments in science and technology. It is striking to see the wide variation in people’s views about animal genetic engineering depending on the mechanism and purpose.”