Genetic engineering – friend or foe?

Image credit: Aqua Mechanical

Ever since the work of Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick elucidated the structure of DNA, humans have been looking for ways to alter it. However genetic engineering in some form has been carried out for centuries, ever since humans first domesticated animals in 12000 BC. Selective breeding of cattle helped optimise productivity, and this was essential for the survival of the human race.

Selective breeding involves breeding two individuals with a desirable trait in order to produce organisms with an augmented version of this trait due to the gene combinations of its parents. An example of selective breeding is maize, which is derived from the wild plant teosinte. Modern maize looks drastically different to its wild ancestor, yet this difference is the result of the alteration of only 5 genes.

Now, although obtaining food is much less of an issue for the majority of the developed world, genetically modified food is still essential for maximising productivity and minimising the consumption of potentially damaging resources such as veterinary medicines, fertilisers and pesticides.

Public opinion of GM foods has always been low, despite no reputable scientific evidence suggesting that it has any detrimental effects on the consumer as long as it is subjected to the same food standards regulations as non-GM food products. A study in 2000 found that around 30.1% of US citizens surveyed believe that genetic engineering would worsen the way of life over the next 20 years. This seems to be due to a lack of understanding of the process of genetic engineering, with 14.2% of these people believing that only genetically modified tomatoes, and not naturally grown ones, contain genes.  69.9% considered themselves poorly informed on modern biotechnology (Priest, 2000). In fact, genetic engineering is having a positive impact on the planet. Due to genetic engineering conferring qualities such as pest resistance or year-round growth in crops and optimal meat production in cattle, GM food has a significantly lower environmental impact.

In reality, genetic engineering is an umbrella term describing any intentional modification to a genome. Though in the past this was mostly carried out by selective breeding, advancements in technology have allowed genetic engineering to be carried out with much more precision in recent years. Modern genetic engineering consists of the desired gene being amplified and , inserted into a suitable vector organism (such as bacteria). These bacteria are then cloned to produce vast quantities of the desired gene product. An example of this is bacteria that have been engineered to produce vital hormones such as insulin, which has been crucial in the treatment of diabetes. However, even more recently, technologies such as CRISPR have been used to directly modify the genes of an organism.

CRISPR technology exploits a microbial defence system and the cas-9 enzyme in order to introduce specific double-strand breaks in the DNA. This allows specific nucleotide modifications to occur, almost anywhere in the genome. Before CRISPR it was only possible to insert genes in specific, restricted regions of existing DNA. With this new technology, scientists have access to what is essentially a word processor for the genome. This CRISPR technology promises to be the future of genetic engineering, and hopefully will lead to scientists being able to modify any gene in a desired way.

However, it is important to remember that this technology will not necessarily be used for good. Biohacking and eugenics are both situations that could utilise genetic engineering to our detriment. However, perhaps even more pressing, considering the strained nature of international relations, is the risk of bioterrorism. Bioterrorism is defined as the use of infectious agents, biological or biochemical substances as weapons of terrorism. It is possible for infectious agents such as viruses to be engineered for mass dissemination, for example by making the agent resistant to treatments or vaccinations and highly contagious. This would lead to mass infection and no way of curing the epidemic; this parallels the Ebola crisis of 2014, although a biologically engineered outbreak could be specifically designed to be incurable. Biowarfare was prevalent in the former Soviet Union and has also been considered several times in the USA. Now, with these technologies become cheaper and more accessible than ever before, considering the implications of genetic engineering is a pressing matter in current times.

Additionally, there are potential ethical issues with GM animals (including those produced via traditional selective breeding). This can be illustrated via the plight of selectively bred dogs, such as Pugs, Samoyeds or Great Danes, which suffer serious health problems that reduce their life expectancy and their quality of life. In a similar manner, genetically modified animals for medical purposes may also suffer. Transplant organs are in incredibly short supply, and thus xenotransplantation (i.e. the transplantation of animal organs into humans) has been a hot-topic of research in recent years. Pigs are the optimum animal donors, yet they have a high immune incompatibility with humans, leading to the transplanted organ being rejected. Scientists have thus attempted to genetically modify the pig cells to not produce the protein that causes this rejection, bringing us closer to using their organs. With this technology being far from allowing pig transplants to be used, the slaughter and expense has been said to be unnecessary, as we are well on our way to being able to 3D print organs for transplantation without any input from animals whatsoever.

Overall, genetic engineering is a fascinating and revolutionary technique that has the potential to cure a wide host of diseases, as well as help solve problems such as world hunger and climate change. However, it has several risks associated with it, and thus should be carefully regulated to ensure that it is used ethically, considering the interests of animals, including humans, as well as the planet. After all, almost everything that we care about has its origins in life, and the DNA that lets it function. 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest