Genetic Engineering: Good or Bad?
History of Genetic Modification
Throughout history, mankind has been captivated by microbiology. The Ancient Chinese had theories about the basis of all living material. Centuries later, the Native Americans held beliefs about basic elements that comprised the entire universe. In England, Robert Hooke discovered the cell wall by examining cork samples. Frenchman Louis Pasteur used his “germ theories” to fuel the development of bacteria-killing methods for food and drink. More recently, many countries around the globe have taken part in the Human Genome Project. This program was designed to map and sequence all of the nucleotides in a human being, thus providing an invaluable database for research and experiments. Now, scientists have gone even further. By utilizing a process known as genetic engineering, scientists can literally alter the genetic code of different types of organisms. This allows scientists to do anything from curing a disease to selecting a specific phenotype in a plant.
Genetic engineering is a method that involves the isolation, manipulation, or reintroduction of DNA into cells or other organisms. One of the main techniques entails adding a plasmid and restriction enzyme to a cell. The enzyme cuts the DNA, enabling the plasmid to enter the DNA sequence. When the cell reproduces, that gene of interest (the plasmid) stays in the genetic code. The possibilities are wide open for what the specific plasmid can code.
The poster child for genetic engineering success is the work being done to cure Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a serious nervous system disorder that affects over one million people in the United States and occurs predominantly in people over 60-years old. Symptoms include stiffness of the arms, legs, and neck; excessive shaking of the hands; slowness and reduction of movement; and loss of balance. The causes of this disease are linked to the loss of nerve cells in the brain and also to a decline in the level of dopamine (a chemical that aids in the transfer of electroimpulses) in the brain. Combined, these two deficiencies restrict some of the messages from the brain from reaching all parts of the body. By incorporating genetic engineering techniques, scientists can improve the quality of life of those afflicted with the disease. For instance, if nervous tissue and axons are reconnected, brain impulses can be transmitted with greater effectiveness, thus eliminating the shaky hands and the unsteady movements that often accompany Parkinson’s.
The greatest victories are coming from scientists at the University of California. These researchers have been able to coat certain liposomes with a polymer known as “polyethylene glycol.” Once the liposomes are inside the brain, the polymer coat can execute its code for the production of proteins or provide genetic material to the brain via a process known as transformation. This is an extraordinarily significant discovery, because scientists had been previously unable to transfer necessary genetic information into the brain. The brain has a unique feature known as the “blood-barrier,” that controls the movement of substances from the central nervous system to the blood. Astrocytes, specific types of glial cells, make an almost impermeable seal around the blood capillaries, thus preventing most macromolecules from entering the brain. When regular molecules are blocked, there is no way to alter the brain chemistry, or to reverse the effects of Parkinson’s. After being genetically altered, the liposomes were able to pass through the barrier and execute their genetic code. Despite the obvious benefits, however, genetic engineering with the human genome remains fairly limited.
Although it is widely utilized in agriculture, forensics, pharmaceuticals, and clinical experiments, many people are wary of experimenting too much with genomes that directly affect humans. Most genetic modifications in humans are known as “gene therapy” in which specific genes are tweaked but will not be passed on to the next generation. In order to make a heritable change, one would have to modify the sex chromosomes. Many feel such tampering or “human enhancement” undermines the sanctity of human life and interferes with the plan of a Supreme Being.
Isn’t genetic engineering merely utilizing the knowledge and resources that have been provided to the human race? We are being extraordinarily irresponsible if we refuse to explore the scientific and medicinal benefits to genetic engineering. There are ethical issues with altering a fetus to enhance cosmetics (eye color, height, hair type, etc.), but it is not necessary to choke off all gene therapy in order to preserve the sanctity of life. We have the distinct possibility of nullifying many viruses and diseases. We can engineer plants to produce more fruit, thereby making each acre more efficient. We can genetically modify livestock to provide more food to impoverished nations. We can have a national surplus of food, or allocate the excess crops for energy sources. We can create drugs capable of curing all manner of disorders. Epilepsy, hypertension, Parkinson’s, autism, neurofibromatosis, and countless other ailments could become as outdated as smallpox. We can extend human life. Wouldn’t these improvements be well worth the money and “social implications” that arise from genetic engineering?
How do you feel about genetic engineering?
People are scared of the future. Has laser surgery for the eyes created a “genetic aristocracy?” Have test-tube babies ruined our nation? Has chemotherapy thrown our society out of whack? The answer is a resounding “NO!” Genetic engineering is simply the next step in scientific progress. How can we stand idly by, while people are dying from curable diseases? To be aware and not use this knowledge is criminally negligent. To refuse to learn at all is just plain criminal.
- Ananthaswamy, Anil. "Undercover genes slip into the brain". NewScientist. Jan 11, 2008 http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn3520
- Lieberman, Abraham. "What is Parkinson's Disease?". Jan 11, 2008 <http://www.pdcaregiver.org/WhatIsParkinsons.html>
- Ridley, Matt. Genome - The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. New York City: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2000
- "Say no to genetic engineering". Greenpeace. Jan 11, 2008 <http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/genetic- engineering>
- "Tutorial: Human Genome-Wide Association Studies Genetic Engineering News". GEN. Jan 11, 2008 <http://www.genengnews.com/articles/chtitem.aspx?tid=1970>