Genetic engineering is a phrase we’re hearing more and more often today, but what exactly does it mean? Why are average people reading about it, seeing it on the news, and talking about it, and what are the pros and cons of genetic engineering? First, we need to define what it is and what the pros and cons of genetic engineering are.
What Is Genetic Engineering?
Genetic engineering, also known as genetic modification or genetic manipulation, is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genes using biotechnology. That is to say, it is a process of changing or adding DNA, the building blocks of life, to an organism to bring about a desired transformation. To this day there is a lively debate in scientific circles and among the general public as to the pros and cons of genetic engineering.
Is There A Need For Genetic Engineering?
When debating the pros and cons of genetic engineering, people often start with discussing whether there is even a need for genetic engineering. Scientists generally agree that genetic engineering could be used to fix severe genetic disorders in humans by replacing defective genes with healthy ones. In fact, this is an important tool in clinical trials, allowing scientists to study the function of specific genes.
By harvesting drugs, vaccines, and other elements from organisms that produce them naturally, doctors can more quickly treat conditions or even prevent them from occurring. Crops developed through genetic engineering grow faster, produce an increased yield, have a higher nutritional value, and have a greater tolerance to environmental stress. They achieve this by introducing the desired DNA directly into the host organism or into a specific cell that they then fuse which with a host.
Ethics And Economics
Is there a need for genetic engineering? It depends on who you ask as debates revolving around the ethics of genetically altering living things continue to this day. Most people don’t even think about the amount of genetically altered food they consume every day, and they don’t care. They only see redder tomatoes, plumper corn, or notice the strawberry they’re eating tastes sweeter.
However, when the conversation goes towards questions of genetically altering animals to produce more meat at an ever faster pace driven by market economics, many of those same consumers have second thoughts about what they’re eating and how it’s produced. Farmers, for the most part, don’t really grow food anymore in the traditional sense, but rather it’s produced on huge factory farms and the crops are genetically engineered to have traits that make them more appealing to the eye, better tasting, more nutritious, and more profitable.
The Double Muscle Belgian Blue Cow
Yes, this is something that really exists. Double-muscled animals have up to 20% more muscle mass than normal animals, and this increased muscle is because these animals have a mutation in a specific gene that normally controls muscle growth. A genetically engineered cow, just like chickens, will produce a significantly greater amount of meat than its non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) cousins.
Again, economics drive the decisions made by corporate farms owned by companies like Cargill and Monsanto. To compete and supply ever-expanding markets with beef, they depend on genetic engineering to stay profitable. There may not be a need for genetic engineering, but so many companies in the food industry have it embedded in their business model that there may be no turning back, at least from an economic standpoint.
Computers, The Double-Helix, And Dragon’s Island
With computers and the power they bring to the laboratory, genetic engineering is now something we can achieve faster and cheaper than ever before. We’ve been altering the genomes of species, both plant and animal, for thousands of years through selective breeding or artificial selection, but we have figured out we don’t have time to wait for thousands, or even hundreds, of years for desired traits to come about naturally in certain plant an animal species.
However, genetic engineering as direct manipulation of DNA outside of the normal confines of breeding and natural mutation has only been in effect since the 1970s. The general concept of manipulating the genetic code was first explored in Proteus Island, a science fiction story written by Stanly Weinbaum in 1936, and the phrase “genetic engineering” was first used in the science fiction novel Dragon’s Island back in 1951, two years before Watson and Crick cracked the DNA code and gave us the wonders of the double-helix structure, which is the building block of life itself.
So even though we’ve been familiar with the idea for several decades, only recently have the methods improved. However, while we’ve become accustomed to altering plants and animals to fit our needs, there are two sides to every coin.
What Are Some Pros And Cons Of Genetic Engineering?
Themes involving genetic manipulation and the pros and cons of genetic engineering have long been a staple in science fiction novels and movies. Today, genetic engineering is far from fiction. It’s all around us and growing at an exponential rate.
Have you ever noticed how large, red, and ripe some tomatoes look at your local market, while other tomatoes seem a little less visually appealing? How about onions that don’t make you cry when you slice them? That would be a benefit for anyone that enjoys cooking. These are just two common examples of genetic engineering. So what’s not to like about redder tomatoes or onions that don’t induce tears? Today, we even have carrots that help fight osteoporosis, and yes, they still help to improve our vision.
Genetic engineering alters plants or animals and changes them so they mature at a sped up pace. Since this maturation occurs beyond the normal growth conditions, it can produce more food that has more desirable traits in a shorter amount of time.
The process of genetic engineering allows for the structure of genes to be changed through a deliberate modification of the genetic material of an organism. Scientists add or remove DNA to produce one or more new traits that weren’t in the original organism. So far we’ve seen benefits: farmers can grow more food quickly at a lower cost, companies can supply more markets and achieve higher profits, and consumers can buy meat and produce that containing a higher nutritional value at a lower cost. Now let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of genetic engineering.
Produces Better Food
Through genetic engineering, we can design hardier foods that are better able to resist pests and harsh weather. It may be difficult to grow certain crops in areas where there isn’t enough water, but a genetically engineered plant will grow faster and more abundantly if it’s been altered to need less water. Plants can be fine-tuned to grow in hot or cold conditions or with less water while producing more nutrients per plant and per acre planted. We can also change plants to provide other benefits besides nutrition. Remember the osteoporosis-fighting carrot?
Eliminates Communicable Disease
We could use genetic engineering to rid the world of many deadly diseases that have been resistant to eradication. Malaria kills millions worldwide each year because of the disease is spread by infected mosquitos. Scientists soon will be able to isolate specific genes in the West Nile mosquito to keep the pest from breeding, resulting in fewer mosquitos and a lower risk of humans contracting malaria. Or what about wiping mosquitos out altogether? How about a world with no more flies? How would these two outcomes rank when talking about the pros and cons of genetic engineering?
Detects Birth Defects In Unborn Children-Elimination Of Childhood Disease
Down’s Syndrome and Spina bifida are only two examples of diseases or genetic conditions they we can now detect before birth. In the recent past, women that discovered that their unborn child had one of these degenerative diseases faced a stark choice between abortion or carrying a severely handicapped baby to term. However, with the ability to change the babies DNA while it’s still in the womb, more children would have the chance to be more healthy with no disease or illness at birth. Eliminating birth defects and childhood diseases is a major positive when discussing the pros and cons of genetic engineering.
Extends Our Lifespan
The human lifespan continue to increase, and while humans are living longer than ever, there is no reason to think we might not extend the lifespan of humans even further. Advances in the power of computing, medical technology, more attention to healthy lifestyles, and genetic engineering could all contribute to human beings living well past one hundred years old in the very near future.
Genetic engineering also has the potential reverse degenerative conditions of the body at the cellular level to improve not only the length of our lives, but the quality of our life. Imagine living free of illness and pain well past your one-hundredth birthday. By selectively editing out genes that cause cancer, Alzheimer’s, and arthritis, the quality of life for billions of people could be enhanced significantly.
We’ve examined reasons that people might support genetic engineering so let’s look at some possible objections.
Ethical Or Religious Objections
When discussing the pros and cons of genetic engineering, ethical and religious questions often arise. Many people remember only a few years ago when stem cell research was stopped in many countries because of concerns voiced over whether it was the ethical, thing to do. In other words, just because we can do something, does that mean we should?
There are strong opinions on both sides when discussing the pros and cons of genetic engineering. Some people that oppose this branch of science do so for ethical or religious beliefs. They become uncomfortable with scientists opening doors they feel are best left closed and fear we are “playing god” or opening a Pandora’s Box without realizing the unintended consequences. Many people were aghast at the thought of harvesting stem cells from deceased infants even though those cells could treat diseases and save the lives of others.
Religious advocates put forth the proposition that disease exists in nature for a reason and that we need to leave things as they are. One could make a case that increased lifespan is already causing social and economic problems. Do we really want people living to one hundred years old when we already have trouble caring for increasing populations? We cannot hope to know the impact that millions upon millions of people living hundreds of years would have on the planet.
Or what about the economic planning that would be needed? Could people afford to live to be two hundred years old? At some point, the money would run out, or would people keep working? Would they have to keep working? We must consider ethical questions like these when discussing the pros and cons of genetic engineering.
Curbing Genetic Diversity
Genetic diversity has given our planet an incredible variety of plant and animal life that has evolved, changed, and adapted through natural selection. By genetically engineering plants, animals, and even ourselves, we will eventually cause negative effects on the genetic diversity that has made life in all its forms so successful. Do we want a world where everyone is of a certain height, weight, eye color, and intelligence because we have the means to engineer it? Parents are already considering eliminating genes that would cause obesity or red hair. What does that say about us as a society?
Genetic Engineering Would Only Be Available To The Rich
As with many things, the early advocates of genetic engineering have the means to buy the technology. What would that mean for a future society where only the wealthy could afford to genetically modify their children before they are born? Besides eradicating disease and deformity, they may also want to add genetic information that would make their offspring taller, faster, stronger, smarter, or more attractive. In time, this would produce a super-race whose members would only belong to an elite economic and self-perpetuating class.
Why Killing All The Mosquitoes Is A Bad Idea
Remember earlier when we were discussing the “pros” of genetic engineering? We talked about malaria and how it kills millions of people every year and how it’s spread by mosquitoes. It is hard to find anyone who likes mosquitoes and many would quickly agree that genetically engineering a way to wipe them from the face of the earth would be a great idea.
The thing is, that as bothersome and sometimes deadly these pests are, they also serve a vital function in the food chain for birds, frogs, reptiles, and even other insects we consider more beneficial than pesky mosquitoes, or even the common housefly. Just because we have the technology to do something, should we proceed without fully understanding the ramifications?
According to the renowned futurist and Director of Engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, we are fast approaching what he calls The Singularity. He believes this will occur by 2029 and will usher in an age of biological machines where man and machine will become one. He uses the mobile phone as an example of something we all carry now to augment our brains and enhance our abilities.
Soon, we won’t carry phones with us. A new biological computing capacity will be within us and we will access information seamlessly from the Cloud technology. Our children and grandchildren will ask us to describe the quaint and cumbersome machines we used to carry in our pockets. They will live fully in a biologically and genetically enhanced world that will be as foreign to our grandchildren as stone knives would be to us.
The question is and will remain, what are the costs of genetic engineering? Once we cross that event horizon there is no going back, no retreat from a world where it will become increasingly more difficult to tell the difference between what is human and what is a machine. That is why it is important to weigh the pros and cons of genetic engineering now and have an intelligent, constructive debate so we can determine our future and what kind of world we want to live in.