“Those who are ignorant to history are destined to repeat it. ” Although genetic engineering is an entirely new field, it brings up issues, especially in eugenics, that society has previously had to deal with. It gives people the power to change many aspects of nature and could result in a lot of life-saving and preventative treatments. However, if this power is misused or abused, the damage could be very great. Therefore, although genetic engineering is a field that should be explored, it needs to be strictly regulated and tested before being put into widespread use.
Some say that people have been trying to change and manipulate nature for many years and that genetic engineering is only an expansion of what has been done. They feel that whatever genetic engineering allows us to do, it is just a natural step in the process. However, in the past, people have been limited by nature and the boundaries that it has set. Until now, people have never had the capability of getting past these boundaries completely. Although occasionally the species boundary has been crossed, nature has set its limits.
For example, scientists have been able to cross the horse and donkey to create the mule, but its reproduction has been restricted by it being sterile. With genetic engineering, however, changes can be made at the genetic level and these limits could be completely ignored. If a limit is not set between using genetic engineering for treatment and using genetic engineering for enhancement, then many parents could use it purely for eugenic purposes. One survey done by researchers showed that eleven percent of couples would abort a child predisposed to obesity.
With genetic engineering they could decide to substitute their childs undesirable characteristics for more desirable ones in order to “customize” their children. This could not only cause ethical concerns but social concerns as well. If this was allowed to occur, it would also give the rich even more advantages than they already have to begin with and drive the social classes even farther apart. The use of genetic engineering may also lead to genetic discrimination. In the future a person could easily get a print-out of his or her genotype.
This same information could then be used by schools, employers, insurance companies, and others, giving rise to a new form of discrimination based on a persons genetic profile. Already, insurance companies and others are using information from genetic tests or a persons genetic background for discrimination. One survey of people who are at risk for certain diseases showed that 455 out of 917 said that they had experienced some sort of genetic discrimination. One family lost their entire coverage when the insurance company discovered that one of its four children had fragile X disease.
Parents could also encounter discrimination based on their decision of whether or not to use genetic engineering for their children. If a couple decides not to test for a genetic disorder or decides not to use genetic therapy even if only for treatment, then if their child is born with a disorder they could be criticized and held responsible for not correcting something that could have been prevented. In order to avoid having the decision of what to do if their child has a genetic disorder, some people might opt for prevention and avoid marrying someone of the wrong “genotype”.
Currently, in the Orthodox Jewish community of the United States, people are encouraged to be tested for the Tay-Sachs gene. This information is then stored in a large database and is used when people are searching for someone to marry. Genetic engineering also involves more than just social and ethical concerns. The implications of using genetic engineering are not fully known and the dangers involved are unpredictable. Just one example of this is in the case where scientists are raising pigs with human organs in order to help fill the constant demand.
However, these xenotransplantations could provide ideal conditions for animal pathogens to jump over from animals to humans creating dangerous new diseases and perhaps even an AIDS 2 or AIDS 3. Without extensive testing the effects that procedures like this could have would be unthinkable. By experimenting with and trying to make nature better or more useful, one is playing with a very delicate balance that can have tremendous effects if it is thrown off. It is evident that there are many benefits that can come about from the use of genetic engineering.
However, a line needs to be drawn as to what point one goes from treating to enhancing. If a line is not drawn then fixing “flaws” can become a dangerous role when one considers that every human has a number of lethal recessive genes. It may be possible in the future to create a near “perfect” human, but if this is the goal, then each person is only seen as having a certain number of mistakes that need to be fixed. Without certain restrictions, the implications may be very far-reaching and unpredictable dangers may exist; if genetic engineering is strictly controlled, however, the results may be extremely beneficial.
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Genetic Engineering, history and futureAltering the Face of Science
Science is a creature that continues to evolve at a much higher rate than the beings that
gave it birth. The transformation time from tree-shrew, to ape, to human far exceeds the time
from analytical engine, to calculator, to computer. But science, in the past, has always remained
distant. It has allowed for advances in production, transportation, and even entertainment, but
never in history will science be able to so deeply affect our lives as genetic engineering will
undoubtedly do. With the birth of this new technology, scientific extremists and anti-technologists
have risen in arms to block its budding future. Spreading fear by misinterpretation
of facts, they promote their hidden agendas in the halls of the United States congress. Genetic
engineering is a safe and powerful tool that will yield unprecedented results, specifically in the
field of medicine. It will usher in a world where gene defects, bacterial disease, and even aging
are a thing of the past. By understanding genetic engineering and its history, discovering its
possibilities, and answering the moral and safety questions it brings forth, the blanket of fear
covering this remarkable technical miracle can be lifted.
The first step to understanding genetic engineering, and embracing its possibilities for
society, is to obtain a rough knowledge base of its history and method. The basis for altering the
evolutionary process is dependant on the understanding of how individuals pass on
characteristics to their offspring. Genetics achieved its first foothold on the secrets of nature’s
evolutionary process when an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel developed the first “laws of
heredity.” Using these laws, scientists studied the characteristics of organisms for most of the
next one hundred years following Mendel’s discovery. These early studies concluded that each
organism has two sets of character determinants, or genes (Stableford 16). For instance, in
regards to eye color, a child could receive one set of genes from his father that were encoded one
blue, and the other brown. The same child could also receive two brown genes from his mother.
The conclusion for this inheritance would be the child has a three in four chance of having
brown eyes, and a one in three chance of having blue eyes (Stableford 16).
Genes are transmitted through chromosomes which reside in the nucleus of every living
organism’s cells. Each chromosome is made up of fine strands of deoxyribonucleic acids, or
DNA. The information carried on the DNA determines the cells function within the organism.
Sex cells are the only cells that contain a complete DNA map of the organism, therefore, “the
structure of a DNA molecule or combination of DNA molecules determines the shape, form, and
function of the [organism’s] offspring ” (Lewin 1). DNA discovery is attributed to the research
of three scientists, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and James Dewey Watson in 1951. They
were all later accredited with the Nobel Price in physiology and medicine in 1962 (Lewin 1).
“The new science of genetic engineering aims to take a dramatic short cut in the slow
process of evolution” (Stableford 25). In essence, scientists aim to remove one gene from an
organism’s DNA, and place it into the DNA of another organism. This would create a new DNA
strand, full of new encoded instructions; a strand that would have taken Mother Nature millions
of years of natural selection to develop. Isolating and removing a desired gene from a DNA
strand involves many different tools. DNA can be broken up by exposing it to ultra-high-frequency
sound waves, but this is an extremely inaccurate way of isolating a desirable DNA section
(Stableford 26). A more accurate way of DNA splicing is the use of “restriction
enzymes, which are produced by various species of bacteria” (Clarke 1). The restriction
enzymes cut the DNA strand at a particular location called a nucleotide base, which makes up a
DNA molecule. Now that the desired portion of the DNA is cut out, it can be joined to another
strand of DNA by using enzymes called ligases. The final important step in the creation of a
new DNA strand is giving it the ability to self-replicate. This can be accomplished by using
special pieces of DNA, called vectors, that permit the generation of multiple copies of a total
DNA strand and fusing it to the newly created DNA structure. Another newly developed
method, called polymerase chain reaction, allows for faster replication of DNA strands and does
not require the use of vectors (Clarke 1).
The possibilities of genetic engineering are endless. Once the power to control the
instructions, given to a single cell, are mastered anything can be accomplished. For example,
insulin can be created and grown in large quantities by using an inexpensive gene manipulation
method of growing a certain bacteria. This supply of insulin is also not dependant on the supply
of pancreatic tissue from animals. Recombinant factor VIII, the blood clotting agent missing in
people suffering from hemophilia, can also be created by genetic engineering. Virtually all
people who were treated with factor VIII before 1985 acquired HIV, and later AIDS. Being
completely pure, the bioengineered version of factor VIII eliminates any possibility of viral
infection. Other uses of genetic engineering include creating disease resistant crops, formulating
milk from cows already containing pharmaceutical compounds, generating vaccines, and
altering livestock traits (Clarke 1). In the not so distant future, genetic engineering will become
a principal player in fighting genetic, bacterial, and viral disease, along with controlling aging,
and providing replaceable parts for humans.
Medicine has seen many new innovations in its history. The discovery of anesthetics
permitted the birth of modern surgery, while the production of antibiotics in the 1920s
minimized the threat from diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and cholera. The creation
of serums which build up the bodies immune system to specific infections, before being laid low
with them, has also enhanced modern medicine greatly (Stableford 59). All of these discoveries,
however, will fall under the broad shadow of genetic engineering when it reaches its apex in the
Many people suffer from genetic diseases ranging from thousands of types of cancers, to
blood, liver, and lung disorders. Amazingly, all of these will be able to be treated by genetic
engineering, specifically, gene therapy. The basis of gene therapy is to supply a functional gene
to cells lacking that particular function, thus correcting the genetic disorder or disease. There
are two main categories of gene therapy: germ line therapy, or altering of sperm and egg cells,
and somatic cell therapy, which is much like an organ transplant. Germ line therapy results in a
permanent change for the entire organism, and its future offspring. Unfortunately, germ line
therapy, is not readily in use on humans for ethical reasons. However, this genetic method
could, in the future, solve many genetic birth defects such as downs syndrome. Somatic cell
therapy deals with the direct treatment of living tissues. Scientists, in a lab, inject the tissues
with the correct, functioning gene and then re-administer them to the patient, correcting the
problem (Clarke 1).
Along with altering the cells of living tissues, genetic engineering has also proven
extremely helpful in the alteration of bacterial genes. “Transforming bacterial cells is easier
than transforming the cells of complex organisms” (Stableford 34). Two reasons are evident for
this ease of manipulation: DNA enters, and functions easily in bacteria, and the transformed
bacteria cells can be easily selected out from the untransformed ones. Bacterial bioengineering
has many uses in our society, it can produce synthetic insulins, a growth hormone for the
treatment of dwarfism and interferons for treatment of cancers and viral diseases (Stableford
Throughout the centuries disease has plagued the world, forcing everyone to take part in a
virtual “lottery with the agents of death” (Stableford 59). Whether viral or bacterial in nature,
such disease are currently combated with the application of vaccines and antibiotics. These
treatments, however, contain many unsolved problems. The difficulty with applying antibiotics
to destroy bacteria is that natural selection allows for the mutation of bacteria cells, sometimes
resulting in mutant bacterium which is resistant to a particular antibiotic. This now
indestructible bacterial pestilence wages havoc on the human body. Genetic engineering is
conquering this medical dilemma by utilizing diseases that target bacterial organisms. these
diseases are viruses, named bacteriophages, “which can be produced to attack specific disease-causing
bacteria” (Stableford 61). Much success has already been obtained by treating animals
with a “phage” designed to attack the E. coli bacteria (Stableford 60).
Diseases caused by viruses are much more difficult to control than those caused by
bacteria. Viruses are not whole organisms, as bacteria are, and reproduce by hijacking the
mechanisms of other cells. Therefore, any treatment designed to stop the virus itself, will also
stop the functioning of its host cell. A virus invades a host cell by piercing it at a site called a
“receptor”. Upon attachment, the virus injects its DNA into the cell, coding it to reproduce more
of the virus. After the virus is replicated millions of times over, the cell bursts and the new
viruses are released to continue the cycle. The body’s natural defense against such cell invasion
is to release certain proteins, called antigens, which “plug up” the receptor sites on healthy cells.
This causes the foreign virus to not have a docking point on the cell. This process, however, is
slow and not effective against a new viral attack. Genetic engineering is improving the body’s
defenses by creating pure antigens, or antibodies, in the lab for injection upon infection with a
viral disease. This pure, concentrated antibody halts the symptoms of such a disease until the
bodies natural defenses catch up. Future procedures may alter the very DNA of human cells,
causing them to produce interferons. These interferons would allow the cell to be able
determine if a foreign body bonding with it is healthy or a virus. In effect, every cell would be
able to recognize every type of virus and be immune to them all (Stableford 61).
Current medical capabilities allow for the transplant of human organs, and even
mechanical portions of some, such as the battery powered pacemaker. Current science can even
re-apply fingers after they have been cut off in accidents, or attach synthetic arms and legs to
allow patients to function normally in society. But would not it be incredibly convenient if the
human body could simply regrow what it needed, such as a new kidney or arm? Genetic
engineering can make this a reality. Currently in the world, a single plant cell can differentiate
into all the components of an original, complex organism. Certain types of salamanders can re-grow
lost limbs, and some lizards can shed their tails when attacked and later grow them again.
Evidence of regeneration is all around and the science of genetic engineering is slowly mastering
its techniques. Regeneration in mammals is essentially a kind of “controlled cancer”, called a
blastema. The cancer is deliberately formed at the regeneration site and then converted into a
structure of functional tissues. But before controlling the blastema is possible, “a detailed
knowledge of the switching process by means of which the genes in the cell nucleus are
selectively activated and deactivated” is needed (Stableford 90). To obtain proof that such a
procedure is possible one only needs to examine an early embryo and realize that it knows
whether to turn itself into an ostrich or a human. After learning the procedure to control and
activate such regeneration, genetic engineering will be able to conquer such ailments as
Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other crippling diseases without grafting in new tissues. The
broader scope of this technique would allow the re-growth of lost limbs, repairing any damaged
organs internally, and the production of spare organs by growing them externally (Stableford
Ever since biblical times the lifespan of a human being has been pegged at roughly 70
years. But is this number truly finite? In order to uncover the answer, knowledge of the process
of aging is needed. A common conception is that the human body contains an internal biological
clock which continues to tick for about 70 years, then stops. An alternate “watch” analogy could
be that the human body contains a certain type of alarm clock, and after so many years, the
alarm sounds and deterioration beings. With that frame of thinking, the human body does not
begin to age until a particular switch is tripped. In essence, stopping this process would simply
involve a means of never allowing the switch to be tripped. W. Donner Denckla, of the Roche
Institute of Molecular Biology, proposes the alarm clock theory is true. He provides evidence
for this statement by examining the similarities between normal aging and the symptoms of a
hormonal deficiency disease associated with the thyroid gland. Denckla proposes that as we get
older the pituitary gland begins to produce a hormone which blocks the actions of the thyroid
hormone, thus causing the body to age and eventually die. If Denckla’s theory is correct,
conquering aging would simply be a process of altering the pituitary’s DNA so it would never be
allowed to release the aging hormone. In the years to come, genetic engineering may finally
defeat the most unbeatable enemy in the world, time (Stableford 94).
The morale and safety questions surrounding genetic engineering currently cause this new
science to be cast in a false light. Anti-technologists and political extremists spread false
interpretation of facts coupled with statements that genetic engineering is not natural and defies
the natural order of things. The morale question of biotechnology can be answered by studying
where the evolution of man is, and where it is leading our society. The safety question can be
answered by examining current safety precautions in industry, and past safety records of many
bioengineering projects already in place.
The evolution of man can be broken up into three basic stages. The first, lasting millions
of years, slowly shaped human nature from Homo erectus to Home sapiens. Natural selection
provided the means for countless random mutations resulting in the appearance of such human
characteristics as hands and feet. The second stage, after the full development of the human
body and mind, saw humans moving from wild foragers to an agriculture based society. Natural
selection received a helping hand as man took advantage of random mutations in nature and bred
more productive species of plants and animals. The most bountiful wheats were collected and
re-planted, and the fastest horses were bred with equally faster horses. Even in our recent
history the strongest black male slaves were mated with the hardest working female slaves. The
third stage, still developing today, will not require the chance acquisition of super-mutations in
nature. Man will be able to create such super-species without the strict limitations imposed by
natural selection. By examining the natural slope of this evolution, the third stage is a natural
and inevitable plateau that man will achieve (Stableford 8). This omniscient control of our
world may seem completely foreign, but the thought of the Egyptians erecting vast pyramids
would have seem strange to Homo erectus as well.
Many claim genetic engineering will cause unseen disasters spiraling our world into
chaotic darkness. However, few realize that many safety nets regarding bioengineering are
already in effect. The Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) was formed under the
National Institute of Health to provide guidelines for research on engineered bacteria for
industrial use. The RAC has also set very restrictive guidelines requiring Federal approval if
research involves pathogenicity (the rare ability of a microbe to cause disease) (Davis, Roche
“It is well established that most natural bacteria do not cause disease. After many years of
experimentation, microbiologists have demonstrated that they can engineer bacteria that are just
as safe as their natural counterparts” (Davis, Rouche 70). In fact the RAC reports that “there has
not been a single case of illness or harm caused by recombinant [engineered] bacteria, and they
now are used safely in high school experiments” (Davis, Rouche 69). Scientists have also
devised other methods of preventing bacteria from escaping their labs, such as modifying the
bacteria so that it will die if it is removed from the laboratory environment. This creates a shield
of complete safety for the outside world. It is also thought that if such bacteria were to escape it
would act like smallpox or anthrax and ravage the land. However, laboratory-created organisms
are not as competitive as pathogens. Davis and Roche sum it up in extremely laymen’s terms,
“no matter how much Frostban you dump on a field, it’s not going to spread” (70). In fact
Frostbran, developed by Steven Lindow at the University of California, Berkeley, was sprayed on
a test field in 1987 and was proven by a RAC committee to be completely harmless (Thompson
Fear of the unknown has slowed the progress of many scientific discoveries in the past.
The thought of man flying or stepping on the moon did not come easy to the average citizens of
the world. But the fact remains, they were accepted and are now an everyday occurrence in our
lives. Genetic engineering too is in its period of fear and misunderstanding, but like every great
discovery in history, it will enjoy its time of realization and come into full use in society. The
world is on the brink of the most exciting step into human evolution ever, and through
knowledge and exploration, should welcome it and its possibilities with open arms.
Clarke, Bryan C. Genetic Engineering. Microsoft (R) Encarta.
Microsoft Corporation, Funk & Wagnalls Corporation, 1994.
Davis, Bernard, and Lissa Roche. “Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Handmaiden
to Humanity.” USA TODAY: The Magazine of the American Scene [GUSA] 118
Nov 1989: 68-70.
Lewin, Seymour Z. Nucleic Acids. Microsoft (R) Encarta. Microsoft
Corporation, Funk & Wagnalls Corporation, 1994.
Stableford, Brian. Future Man. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1984.
Thompson, Dick. “The Most Hated Man in Science.” Time 23 Dec 4 1989:102-104
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