Genetic Engineering: A blessing or a Catastrophe?
From the microscopic bacterium to large whales and the intellectually superior human beings, every living organism carries within itself a set of instructions in the form of messages and codes in their genes. Such set of instructions in the genes decide their growth patterns, appearance, reproduction and human characteristics. Genes are responsible for every possible action the organism performs and the alterations in the genes result in an altered lifestyle pattern. The manipulation of these genes results in an altered from of organism and this practice is termed as genetic engineering. These genetically modified organisms can be microscopic bacterium, animals or even human beings and the modifications result in newly gained features or loss of any past qualities (Morgan 7). Genetic engineering has become a popular scientific practice and is incorporated in agriculture, biofuel production, human cells modifications, cattle reproduction, farming, antibiotic synthesis and other areas of industry and medicine. Different schools of thoughts exist in the scientific world regarding the outcomes of genetic engineering. Some consider this manipulation of life as a scientific achievement and the future of a successful and flourishing world. However, others view genetic engineering as a source of various health risks and against various ethics of life, medicine and religion.
The history of genetics can be estimated 100 years back when the humans first considered the concept of genes and genomics. Gregor Mendel crosses the mind as the first person who introduced the importance of genes in the determination of traits and characteristics of the organisms. In 1913 genes word was used for the first time in the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary. Wilhelm Johanssen was the first who coined this term. In 2003 Lee Keekok proposed that the information and knowledge put forward by Mendel should be studied more and the investigations in this aspect should not be restricted or minimized. Watson and Crick put forward the double helix structure of the DNA thus laying the foundations for the genetic engineering we are familiar with today. By 1996, scientists in Great Britain had created the first cloned mammal, Dolly, the sheep. In 2001, the U.S. Congress banned all forms of human cloning. In 2002, cloning attempts on mice were attempted. In 2005, the Korean scientists claimed the creation of first cloned dog which they named as Snuppy (Herring 15-21, 31). Genetic engineering has thus developed remarkably both in terms of scientific advancements and political approval since the word “genes” was coined.
Humans have always tried to improve the appearance of animals and plants for many years. Production of different types of crops and different breeds of cattle has been tried by farmers. But selective breeding has proved to be a slow and uncertain process with fewer benefits. Genetic engineering serves as a helping hand that helps in altering as required the particular genes of the animals or plants thus resulting in a new product with altered abilities and qualities. One important breakthrough is in the human and animal medicine. The insulin used for treating diabetes had been initially achieved from pigs which was not identical to human insulin. By employing genetic engineering, human protein can be manufactured and administered in diabetic patients. The gene for insulin is attained from the human chromosome, removed using cutting enzymes and then inserted into bacterial DNA. This altered bacterial DNA is inserted into bacterial cells which continue to grow the human insulin and can then be used for therapeutic purposes. The product obtained is pure and is also a cheap and effective method for getting insulin. However, problems of impurities like viruses in the newly obtained products are also an important issue, for instance, the growth hormone given to some patients resulted in their death because of presence of a virus and many hemophiliacs became HIV positive due the virus in the genetically engineering factor VIII (Morgan 14-16). The benefits of genetic in the field of human medicine are significant and have helped in a plethora of manners to improve the therapeutic strategies.
Genetic engineering is applied in various forms and techniques to aid in understanding the human pathologies and improving the therapeutic techniques. Endocrine-disruptors found in many freshwater pollutants, plastics and some female contraceptives, mimic as sex hormones and cause heart-related and reproductive problems in humans like breast and testicular cancers and low sperm count. On the other hand, these disruptors also affect the freshwater fish resulting in sex changes. The scientists have created a glowing zebra fish through genetic engineering to track the path of the pollutants and confirm the relation of these pollutants to the suspected pathologies. The genetically modified fish showed glowing parts of their body which were affected by the pollutants after administering them. Heart, eyes and skeletal system of the fish glowed in response to the endocrine-disruptors (Handwerk n.p). Another significant advancement in the therapeutic field of medicine is the production of genetically modified stem cells. Stem cells play an important role in tissue regeneration and angiogenesis; however, they cannot be alone used to produce significant outcomes. Genetically engineered stem cells with vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) high-expressing genes have been created which have the abilities of promoting angiogenesis and increased vascular density. The experiments were performed on mouse ischemic hind limbs and the modified stem cells showed enhanced vascular growth and reduced fibrosis and muscle degradation (Yang et al n.p.). The modified stem cells with improved genes for promoting angiogenesis can be applied for better tissue growth and regeneration in cases of ischemia and tissue injury.
Eugenics is an important part of genetic engineering. Eugenic deals with the improvement of hereditary qualities of humans by controlling their mating process. Francis Galton was the first person to coin the term eugenics meaning “well born”. “Designer kids” is an interesting term that reflects the possibilities of choosing how your kids look like! Parents can choose the type of appearance their child will have if they can afford it. However, several protests were made on this controversial topic by people who believed that humans should not be given the authority to decide the appearance of their children. However, preimplantation genetic diagnostic tests also come under the category of eugenics and are significantly helpful in diagnosing any genetic birth defect and the risks of passing these defects from parents to their children (Tagliaferro 69-73).
Cloning of organisms has been considered as a breakthrough in scientific world achieved through genetic engineering. A clone is defined as an organism that consists of DNA exactly similar to the other organism. Cloning is not only applied to humans but is also applicable to other mammals, plants, microorganisms or any other form of life. Dolly, was a major achievement in the cloning of animals and made headlines all over the world. This encouraged the scientists to consider human cloning as an achievable experiment and not impossible (Masters pg. 54, 60). Cloning in humans is a questionable notion and many people consider is morally inappropriate as well as a dangerous procedure. However, potential benefits and risks are associated with it. Scientists could create organs through process of cloning for the humans and alter genes so that the organs could be accepted better by the body. On the other hand, it is feared that if human clones were to be created they would not have the normal life span of 70 to 80 years and will age earlier (Masters 64). The concept of “spare parts” for humans with diseased organs is accepted worldwide and is quite practical and effective. Although human cloning is still under arguments and controversies, but the concept of creating individual organs for humans is generally accepted. Skin is one of the tissue-engineered organs that are already in the market to be used as a replacement for diseased skin (Masters 84-85). Genetic engineering promises improvements in the therapeutic strategies for various diseases and a new horizon of human cloning and “designer babies”. Although some aspects are still under research and controversies, they have already provided humans “genetic options” of enhancing their appearance, health and lifestyle.
Genetic engineering was also applied on sheep to gain better and increased production of wool. In the experiment, transgenic sheep were produced by the introduction of a ultra-high-sulfur keratin promoter which was linked to insulin-like growth factor (IGF1). The genetically modified sheep presented with an increased shearing as compared to the non-transgenic sheep. An increased rate of 6.2% was observed. The composition and quality of the sheared wool was also investigated. It was observed that the wool obtained from the transgenic sheep was not different in terms of body weight, diameter, bulk, fiber quality and medullation. No potential public health risks and adverse effects on reproduction were recorded (Damak et al n.p.). This proposed an increased production of wool through genetically engineered sheep proving as a potential advancement in farming.
The introduction of biotechnology in agriculture was driven by many factors and causes. It might be considered that the hunger faced by the poverty ridden people of developing countries or the inequality faced by people world-wide led to this scientific advancement. But majority thinks otherwise. Genetic engineering is labeled as a profit-driven practice and investors seek profit in the genetically modified crops and seeds. Introduction of herbicide resistant crops or crops with improved production and reproduction rates are considered as reasons for the investors to gain profit. Many questions are associated with transgenic plants like their similarity to non-modified crops and the safety of their consumption (Altieri 5-7). It will be wise to proportionately discuss the blessings and perils of the genetically modified crops.
Genetic engineering has also been successfully used for the production of raw material used for pulp and paper production. Lignin is an important composition of the raw material that is used for this purpose. Genetically modifiable lignin to enhance the production of pulp. With the application of this concept, the wood and plant fibers can be improved both in bulk and quality for industrial applications. Modification of the genes that are responsible for lignin production in these plants can serve as the foundation for future researches in this aspect and an industrial and scientific breakthrough in the paper and pulp production industries (Baucher et al 306-307, 336-337).
Many advancements and efforts are being made recently to produce and accumulate natural fuel products like lipids, hydrocarbons, polysaccharides and other energy storing compounds in organisms like yeast, bacteria and photosynthetic organisms. This is experimented and attained though the techniques of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is now employed in the microalgae which are eukaryotic organisms and have high abilities of biofuel production in terms of starch synthesis and storage and accumulation of triacylglycerols. Genetic engineering can be applied on this eukaryotic organism to improve its biofuel production. This biofuel platform can then be used as a foundation for the production of biohydrogen, starch-derived fuels and diesel fuel replacements (Radakovits et al n.p). With genetic engineering used for biofuel production the depleting reserves of energy can be replaced efficiently and effectively.
Even though recombinant DNA, cloning, genetically modified organism and transgenic plants and animals are very popular these days and are extensively under research, these experiments are associated with their individual risks and adverse effects and should be thoroughly analyzed. It is important to assess the transgenic plants and animals for any optimal risks and adverse effects. The risks depend on nature of organism that is transformed, the host organism, construction of the inserted DNA, altered traits in the genetically modified organism and the extent of use of the genetically engineered organism. Once the risks associated with these criteria are assessed and analyzed the experiment should be continued and applied for practical purposes. The control of the transgenic animals and microbes is easier as they are grown or monitored in closed laboratory environments. However, the transgenic plants are associated with greater risks as they have to be grown in open environmental conditions (Satya 278-280).
Humans are now living in the era of genetic engineering where couples can acquire benefits from the techniques of preimplantation genetic diagnosis and choose an embryo free of cystic fibrosis or confirm the genetic status of their baby before he/she is even born. Currently the concept of designer babies is new around us, but when more researches are completed and the idea of choosing your baby’s appearance is better accepted, people will both, use and misuse this power. These genetic enhancements have been questioned by bioethicists, journalists, media and the common man. However, it has been observed through history that couples who have found themselves in risk situations like genetic defects in their children or risks of birth defects have relied on these methods and have been successful as well. Many consider that the benefits of genetic engineering outweigh the dangers but there are some that think otherwise. They believe that this could lead to genetic discrimination at work places or schools, affect the relationship between parents and children and turn children into mere objects which are experimented with and tested before birth. Some believe that this could also lead to genetic inequality where the financially sufficient people will provide superior qualities to their children and the poor could not make use of this opportunity (Stock 124-127). The pros and cons of genetic engineering are still a conspicuous topic of debate and analysis of the outcomes should be carried out to gain the maximum benefits for the mankind.
Although genetic engineering has facilitated the various aspects of farming but the transgenic crops have various short-comings which might be responsible for feared health and environmental risks. It is being proposed that the transgenic crops contain certain allergenic substances that are produced by the introduction of new genes into the crops. Moreover, these genetically modified crops are obtained by using antibiotic-resistant genes and could be a potential cause of production of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. This activity would serve as a major cause of future challenges in therapeutic techniques. The composition of crops in terms of nutrients is also not considered as equivalent to the unmodified crops. “The less nutritious value might lead to short-comings in certain nutrients like phytoestrogens which are significant in preventing cancer and heart diseases.” (Bakshi n.p.). Although the genetically engineered crops are grown in a safe environment and have been consumed safely with no complications, these potential dangers still exist. They should be researched and investigated to prevent any future major risks and dangers.
Genetically modified crops with herbicide and pesticide resistant properties are used in various parts of the world. However, it has been observed that instead of improved crop production, these transgenic crops have led to the production of insects and weeds resistant to pesticides and insecticide. According to reports, the use of herbicides with glyphosphate is a dangerous step risking the quality of crops and health of the consumers. The scientists say that the crops have lower nutritious value and have lower levels of manganese and calcium (Outwater np). The risks of the negative outcomes of cultivating herbicide resistant crops are plenty and should be researched to the fullest before making these available to the public.
Genetic engineering is a vast scientific field that has undergone controversies, repeated researches and many beneficial as well as adverse outcomes. Various breakthroughs have been attained by the application of the genetic engineering techniques on humans, animals and microorganisms. Better traits in humans, improved therapeutic goals like insulin production, genetically modified stem cells and detection of genetic defects before birth have been promised by genetic engineering. Genetically modified plants have also served as a source of controversial talks and debates by the scientists. The modified seeds and the improved crops with altered abilities promise of better and enhanced crop production, reflecting of reduced world hunger and better food availability in developing countries. However, scientists are also presented with the potential risks involved with the genetically modified plants with low nutrients and potentially composed of toxic materials. Genetic engineering has been the hot topic in the field of science since the time this practice emerged. Nevertheless, the benefits and the remarkable scientific understanding and advancements this practice has provided, are countless and immeasurable. The scientific hazards and risk assessment should go hand in hand with the research, but further investigations and progress in genetic engineering should not be minimized or restricted.
- Altieri, Miguel A. Genetic Engineering in Agriculture: The Myths, Environmental Risks, and Alternatives. Oakland, Calif: Food First Books/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 2004. Print.
- The author has focused on a single important aspect of genetic engineering i.e. altered crops and plants. The pros and cons of the genetically modified crops have been highlighted. Various techniques that are used for this purpose, the environmental and public health risk factors and the beneficial outcomes have been comprehensively described by the author.
- Bakshi, A. “Potential Adverse Health Effects of Genetically Modified Crops.” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part B, Critical Reviews. 6.3 (2003). 211-225. Print.
- The author has explained the potential public risk factors associated with the consumption of the genetically modified crops. The author has highlighted that these crops are a major source of food in developing countries and although most of these crops are safe but the potential risk factors should be given significant consideration. As the mass consumption of the genetically modified crops can cause a serious public health problem if any toxic or harmful aspects come forward.
- Baucher, Marie, Claire Halpin, Michel Petit-Conil, and Wout Boerjan. “Lignin: Genetic Engineering and Impact on Pulping.” Critical Reviews in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. 38.4 (2003): 305-350. Print.
- The authors of this review highlight the use of lignin as a tool of genetically modified wood that can be employed for better paper and pulp production. The review presents the current technologies and studies regarding this notion. The impact of this genetically engineered product is discussed and the economical and environmental benefits are elaborated.
- Damak, S, H Su, NP Jay, and DW Bullock. “Improved Wool Production in Transgenic Sheep Expressing Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1.” Bio/technology (nature Publishing Company). 14.2 (1996): 185-8. Print.
- The author signifies a beneficial outcome of genetic engineering observed in sheep. According to the study, it was observed that genetically modified sheep presented with better and increased production of wool. The writer also compares the composition and quality of the genetically altered wool and the ordinary wool to elaborate the success of the experiment.
- Handwerk, B. Fish Grow green after genetic engineering. National Geographic News. 2012. Web 22 May 2012. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/04/120423-fish glowing-pollution-bpa-environment-science/>
- The author has reported about genetically engineered fishes that can glow green due to fluorescent capabilities and are used for the study of effects of pollutants in the body. The author explains how this genetically modified zebra fish could help in understanding the effects of various chemicals on the human or animal’s body.
- Herring, Mark Y. Genetic Engineering. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2006. Print.
- The author has proportionately described the pros and cons of genetic engineering and described why this scientific advancement has become an increasingly controversial issue. Various aspects of this topic like cloning, altered foods, crime-solving, gene splicing and human genome project have been discussed. Thus both sides of the debate have been comprehensively described.
- Morgan, Sally. Genetic Engineering: The Facts. London: Evans, 2003. Print.
- The author puts forward the various facts and myths related to the term genetic engineering in front of the reader. The actual benefits and the rewarding gifts of genetically modified organisms have been highlighted. On the other hand, the myths related to genetic engineering and the false hopes associated with it have been cleared out.
- Masters, Colin. Dna and Your Body: What You Need to Know About Biotechnology. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005. Print.
- The author has highlighted the relation of DNA and its applications in various aspects of human life. Genetic engineering has been employed in cloning, various human pathologies, tissue engineering and the process of ageing. The author has also described the future of this field and what can be further achieved through advancements in genetic engineering.
- Outwater, A. Tanzania: herbicide effects extend beyond plants. All Africa: Tanzania Daily News. 2012. Web. 20 May 2012. <http://allafrica.com/stories/201205130180.html>
- The author reports about the herbicide tolerant crops that were used in Africa. The adverse effects of the crops have been highlighted and how the intended benefits could not be achieved completely. The potential adverse effects of the crops on the human health have been reported.
- Radakovits, R, R.E Jinkerson, M.C Posewitz, and A Darzins. “Genetic Engineering of Algae for Enhanced Biofuel Production.” Eukaryotic Cell. 9.4 (2010): 486-501. Print.
- The authors highlight the relevance of the microalgae to the increased and improved production of biofuel as compared to other eukaryotes. The authors of this review focus on the benefits that can be obtained if genetically modified algae are used for the production of biofuel.
- Satya, Pratik. Genomics and Genetic Engineering. New Delhi: New India Publishing Agency, 2007. Print.
- The author has very elaborative described the basic concepts of genetic engineering and genomics. The various techniques currently employed and te future methods under study have been discussed. The applications of genetic engineering in plants and animals in various aspects have also been highlighted.
- Stock, Gregory. Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.
- The author has explained the progress and achievements made by the scientists in the field of genetic engineering up till now and how they have affected the humans. The author has comprehensively described the biological techniques employed and the various aspects of human life that have been affected by biotechnology. The ethical issues, future challenges and political controversies have also been described.
- Tagliaferro, Linda. Genetic Engineering: Modern Progress or Future Peril?Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2010. Print.
- The author has described the different opinions regarding genetic engineering. Some consider genetic engineering as a source of help and benefit for the society while others disagree and consider its outcomes as an environmental risk and danger to public health. The author has signified the various debates regarding the ethics and outcomes of genetic engineering.
- Yang, F, S.-W Cho, S.M Son, S.R Bogatyrev, D Singh, J.J Green, Y Mei, R Langer, S Park, S.H Bhang, B.-S Kim, and D.G Anderson. “Genetic Engineering of Human Stem Cells for Enhanced Angiogenesis Using Biodegradable Polymeric Nanoparticles.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 107.8 (2010): 3317-3322. Print.
- The authors of this investigative research study elaborate the importance of genetically engineered stem cells and their role in vascularization of injured tissue and treatment of ischemic tissues. The study represents that the modified stem cells show improved performance and activity in promoting angiogenesis as compared to the ordinary stem cells.