Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering for Beginners
The Building Blocks of Life
Electrons, Protons and Neutrons are the three basic building blocks of all matter (we will ignore the smaller quanta that these are composed of.) These are specific types of moving forces that we usually think of as particles. Put together in different quantities, these particles create units we call "atoms" that have their own unique behaviours. A group of related atoms is called an element. Atoms also combine with one another in diverse patterns called molecules. There are 118 known elements but we have a very special relationship to six of them in particular: Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus and Sulphur. These six elements are the ingredients that compose the molecules which make up all life on this planet. This includes not only plants and animals but also protozoa (microscopic organisms.) It is these organic molecules that are worked with in the field of Biotechnology in order to produce commercial products and services. One type of molecule that is shared by wide range of living things here on Earth (except for retroviruses) is called deoxyribonucleic acid or "DNA". This molecule contains inherited instructions called "genes" which determine the shape and function of the individual organism. It is the DNA molecule that is studied and manipulated by genetic engineers. Genetic Engineering is a specific discipline that is used extensively in the modern biotech industry. This webpage was designed to help the average individual to gain a greater understanding of the techniques, applications and ethical considerations of biotechnology.
What Is Biotechnology?
The most inclusive definition of biotechnology is the harnessing of living systems for commercial purposes. The smallest living system consists of a cell. This is a basic unit that performs certain critical functions in order to survive. Some of the ways in which organic or living systems have been utilized for biotech applications in the past include the production of cheese and yogurt, alcoholic beverages, leavened bread, the domestication of wild organisms through selective breeding as well as the cloning and hybridization of plants. In our modern era we are so used to taking advantage the products and services made possible through the use of these biological technologies that most people don't think of them as unnatural, unethical or controversial in any way. One major exception to this is found within the Vegan community. Vegans are individuals who feel that biotechnology is a form of unethical exploitation that turns the living creatures involved into slaves and deprives them of the freedom of choice. Usually this distinction is extended to include the boycott of animal products only but some extreme individuals take this further to include plants and protozoa. Among the most extreme practitioners of this type of philosophy you will find Fruitarians and Breatharians. The former feel that the only ethical source of food is fruit that has fallen off of the parent plant through natural means. Breatharians believe that the ideal, ethical diet would consist of drawing sustenance exclusively from the air you breathe and from the light of the sun. There are even those who claim to have successfully survived on a pure Breatharian diet.
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Modern Techniques and Applications of Biotech
Most of what we call "Biotechnology" today consists of manipulating living systems directly at the molecular level. A major part of this is what we call Genetic Engineering, a field of activity that takes advantage of our understanding of the DNA molecule and the genes found within it. The most commonly discussed type of procedure involves taking a specific gene sequence from one organism and incorporating it into another organism that may be vastly different. A more specific example would be the inclusion of DNA material from a bacterium into a commercial food crop [like corn or soybeans] in order to bestow the power of pest resistance on the now genetically modified organism (GMO). This allows the farmer who chooses to use this type of GMO instead of the non-modified crop to benefit from an increased crop yield without the need for heavy pesticides. Another example would include fortifying crops with the genetics that allow them to grow in marginal soil, such as that with a high salt content. This allows land to be utilized for food production that would have otherwise been unsuitable for the purpose.
One of the more highly controversial techniques that fall within the realm of genetic engineering is cloning technology. This is the creation of a life form with the same DNA as an already existing life form. Cloning is something that happens naturally in humans, for example, when identical twins [or triplets, quadruplets, etc...] are born. These are two [or more] individual humans that have identical genetics. Identical siblings or clones are not multiple copies of the same individual. While they may have much in common, each will have their own unique experiences and independent choices in life. The same can be said of any two humans, regardless of how similar or different their genetic structure may be. Human Reproductive Cloning, or the creation of human clones in a lab with the intention of allowing the new life to develop to maturity and live a full life of its own choosing is currently illegal under international law. On the other hand, there are some countries in which Therapeutic Human Cloning research has been allowed. What distinguishes this from reproductive cloning is that the cloned human organism is only allowed to develop for two weeks or less before being terminated and harvested for its stem cells. The stem cells (undifferentiated or pre-specialized cells) harvested from the embryo are studied with the intention to ascertain their usefulness in therapies designed to treat various diseases or injuries. These are just a few examples of genetic engineering in action.
Is Biotechnology Good For Us?
Will The Biotech Industry Generate Greater Benefit or Harm?
Some Ethical Considerations of GMO Foods
One downside to using Genetically Modified Organisms such as pest resistant corn is that these GMO crop seeds are patented and the copyrights are heavily controlled. The biotech companies owning these copyrights are able to demand royalties from those who use the seeds, which are designed in such a manner as to produce only sterile seeds that are useless for future plantings. This creates a situation in which the commercial farmer becomes dependent upon the biotechnology company to provide viable seeds on a regular cycle. This is good for the GMO seed producer (and their stock holders) but takes power away from the farmer. It can be a difficult decision for any crop producer. Another issue that comes up sometimes is the unintentional cross-pollination of non-GMO crops growing in a field adjacent to one growing the comparable, but genetically modified crop. There have been cases where farmers were sued for royalties by a biotech corporation who claimed that the crops being grown contained their patented genetics. The crops being grown had been pollinated by the neighbour's GMO crops unintentionally simply through being downwind.
This trend of using hybridized seeds that produce no viable next generation seeds is so huge that we have gotten into a situation where Monsanto, the owners of most patented seed genetics, is in control of a huge percentage of the world's food supply. If they were to go out of business, or even simply raise prices or reduce stock one year, it would have an immense impact on the world's available food. There are many who seek to maintain non-hybrid seed stock in their personal gardens and container plants. Stockpiles of these viable seeds are being held by individuals and there are projects around the world to create larger repositories.
Another issue this brings up is that the non-GMO crops may be advertizing itself as GMO free, but still contain modified genetics through natural cross-pollination. Another important question to ask when considering GMO food crops is whether we understand the potential effects on human health when consuming these products. Many countries do not require food to be labelled as GMO or non-GMO. Critics will sometimes refer to GMO foods as "Frankenfoods" to indicate what they feel is an unwise tampering with the processes of life and the reckless creation of new and unpredictable organisms.
These are just a few of the more popular issues discussed when considering genetically modified food.
Human Cloning Documentary
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