Disease, drought, malnutrition, pests, malfunctioning genes are all factors are all problems that society faces. Only until recently a new method of solving these problems was discovered, genetic engineering. Genetic engineering refers to the process of manipulating an organism’s DNA to change its traits. This practice can be applied to plants, animals, and humans. It is utilized to remove or change undesirable traits and replace with desirable ones. Since the last century this tool has been discovered and has considerably improved since. Now genetically modified crops are grown regularly and their harvest sold in stores. Human and animal genes adjusted and genetic diseases such as Huntington’s or Sickle Cell Anemia might see the end of their days. Now scientists are no longer asking themselves Can we? but instead Should we? The science community and law makers are faced with the ethicality of genetic engineering and the decision of where the line is drawn.
Genetic engineering comes with dangers and should be handled cautiously, but ultimately benefits society in a variety of ways. It is important to note the history and applications of genetic engineering to understand its ethical and social ramifications. Before history had even been recorded farmers have been using genetic engineering techniques in agriculture to produce the most productive plants. This genetic engineering technique is formally known as artificial selection to produce desirable characteristics. Corn as we know it today growing tall with large ears and plentiful kernels began as a wild grass with very few kernels. This technique doesn’t end with plants it includes animals as well for higher quality meat, wool, or purpose. Charles Darwin originally coined the term artificial selection in his book On the Origin of Species. Darwin claimed that man and his powers of artificial selection can do so much that there may be no limit to the amount of change for all organic complexes (Darwin, 109). The pursuit of modern genetic engineering as a direct manipulation of an organism’s genes begins with the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid; DNA.
While the nucleus of a cell was the first organelle to be discovered, scientists for hundreds of years believed that proteins themselves held the genetic material to replicate. It wasn’t until the work of Walter Sutton and Theodor Boveri that identified chromosomes as the carriers of genetic material. DNA is composed of four bases each pairing to its corresponding base known as the pairing rule. These bases come together and form a double-helix structure, this was first proposed by Francis Crick and James Watson in their published paper in 1953 called the Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids (Francis and Crick, 1953). The birth of modern genetic engineering came to life after Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen created the first successful genetic engineered organism in 1973. Boyer and Cohen were able take antibiotic resistant genes and insert them into Escherichia coli bacterium (E. coli). They found this that E.coli was not only able to carry these antibiotic genes but generations of the bacteria after held these resistant genes (Arnold, 2009).
This groundbreaking discovery of inserting genetic information from one species into another called genetic recombinant shook the world and showed the potential of DNA engineering. Only a year later Rudolf Jaenisch was able to create the world’s first transgenic animal by inserting viral DNA into mouse embryos. This DNA not only was integrated with the mouse but was found to be passed down generation after generation showing possibilities for medicine, industry, and agriculture. Though directly after this discovery immediately concerned governments and scientists alike on the potential consequences of this ability. This lead to the Asilmar Conference of 1975 which implemented guidelines of safety and regulations for the continuation of genetically engineered projects. In the 1980’s the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that patents could be made for genetically modified life. Two years later the United States Food and Drug Aministration (FDA) approved the first genetically modified medication for humans.
Genetic engineering has a wide variety of uses, but it is important to know the process of genetic modification in order to understand its applications. Scientists must first identify an organism that has a desired gene to use. Once the gene has been identified it must next be isolated, this is done by restriction enzymes. This is a cut and paste procedure, the restriction enzyme locates the specific DNA sequence, cuts it from the chromosomes and is pasted into a plasmid (Powell, 2015). A plasmid is a DNA molecule independent from chromosomes that can replicate themselves if they are in a suitable host, usually a bacteria. This bacteria is used as a Trojan horse and inserted into the genome of the organism of interest. If this process is successful the organism will carry this gene and be able to replicate it and pass it on for generations. Genetic engineering application to medicine plays a large role to produce necessary medicine such as vaccines, drugs, and hormones at low costs. These medicines are produced from microorganisms and plant based substances and is one of the most accepted applications of genetic engineering. Gene therapy is one of the most promising forms of genetic engineering that is being used to cure hereditary diseases. The first human patient the gene therapy technique was ever used on was a four-year old girl in 1990 who suffered from ADA deficiency (Gene Therapy, 2018).
ADA deficiency is a rare hereditary disorder that causes immunodeficiency and damages the immune system. Present day the girl is now leading normal lives and shows a steady increase of ADA. Gene therapy although is not always successful. During the pursuit of gene therapy research an eighteen-year old American was the first to die because of his participation in this research. Agriculture integrates genetic engineering processes to a great extent. Farmers in the past have always been successful to a degree at producing high amounts of crops and animals. With the help of genetic modification these same results can be achieved in a much shorter time frame with increased specitivity (Muntaha et al. 2016).
Countries all over the world now harvest genetically modified crops because of the many benefits it allows for. Instead of using harmful chemicals found in pesticides that harm the environment and humans alike, plants with modified gene sequences can yield even better results than before. These modified crops also have a greater drought and salinity tolerance along with providing a greater source of nutrition. Along with genetic engineering comes with many concerns of ethics and health. Some research shows genetically modified foods and crops can lead to the detriment of one’s health, while other contradictory research reveals the benefits of genetically modified foods. While over three million people die from malnutrition around the world per year, one hundred sixty-one people have stunted growth from malnutrition. This problem not only arises from simple lack of calories, but from lack of vitamins and mineral content in their food. In an effort to combat this issue companies have resorted to fortifying foods. Plants are altered so that they can produce food of greater quality and include more nutritional value. Golden Rice, for example, is biofortified and genetically engineered to contain more vitamin A. Genes were inserted from daffodil and bacteria DNA. In the Golden Rice example, after it was genetically altered, just 72 grams of rice that had been fortified was enough to prevent vitamin A deficiency. This method can be applied to other plants as well and used to combat low nutritional value. An issue has been seen by implementing these fortified foods in impoverished counties.
By introducing genetically modified plants to poor countries, local farmers are not given the chance to produce crops themselves. This issue leads poorer countries to become more dependent on richer countries to provide for them instead of teaching these countries independence by showing farmers how to produce more nutrient diverse crops. Farmers should learn how to grow plants of wider variety to combat nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition without having to genetically modify plants (Gearing, 2015) . Plants are also genetically modified for reasons other than nutritional value. Some are engineered to be resistant to disease and drought. Plums are engineered to be resistant to the plum pox virus, corn is engineered to be resistant to pests, and soybeans are engineered to be resistant to herbicide. This type of engineering has been successful in producing healthier crops and in greater quantity.
Genetic engineering does not come without concerns though. Modification of DNA can unintentionally change the rate of growth, metabolism, along with many other factors. To humans, this poses the risk of new allergens and antibiotic resistant genes in the gut. Nonetheless, many of these issues can easily be solved through tighter regulation and testing (Phillips, 2008). Most importantly, genetic engineering is an extremely powerful weapon and if fell into the wrong hands could be tremendously dangerous. More lethal and harmful biological weapons resistant to medicines could be produced. If used by terrorist organizations such a tool as genetic engineering could easily be used for maleficent purposes (Patra, 2015). The history and applications of genetic engineering lends itself to a greater understanding of the topic, which can be used to assess the social and ethical ramifications. While genetic engineering does have its risks, the benefits seem to significantly outweigh them. It is within society’s interest to continue genetic engineering as it seen to result in the improvement of health and is more efficient than the status quo. DNA is the basis of life and genetic engineering is the tool to change it for the better.
Using these techniques a plethora of societies problems can be resolved as well as humans understanding of life rises. The more genetic engineering is researched and implemented science can save the life of this earth as well as all the lives around us. In the end, genetic engineering has and will continue to prove itself to be a useful tool for change, but must be heavily tested and regulated in order to ensure safe practices. Genetic engineering will only continue to improve and correct more issues. Genetic engineering is the future and the future is inevitable.
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