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SUPPORTING THE PROGRESS OF GENETICS

By Bryan Brosseau
   

One of the most controversial topics recently covered by the media is the progress of genetic research. There are clearly benefits to this research and this branch of science shows great potential. However, there are many who protest this kind of development; it seems that every sect has some reason why this area of technology should not be allowed to progress. Many are fearful of the possibilities of disastrous, unseen consequences of genetic development and the possible breaches of safety this progress could produce. Others think this manipulation will have negative impacts on the environment. No matter what the reason for denying the world the benefits of genetic research, it is narrow-minded to say that there can be a problem produced by genetics that can not be remedied by the same research of which it is a byproduct. Although, like other technologies, there are risks involved this technology, the benefits far outweigh these risks. For each problem, there are multiple solutions.

Any person reading this paper has seen the benefits of genetic research and development, regardless of them knowing it. Our medicine and agriculture are the areas that have profited most from this. Ironically, man has practiced genetic engineering to an extent throughout history. Humans have selectively bred livestock, plants, pets, and even ourselves. Farmers breed cows they think will produce more meat or milk and breed corn they think will produce a better crop or be hardier. In most cases, mate choice in humans is determined by one individual preferring one individual over another due to a set of traits that individual possesses. Upon mating, each individual passes on at least some of those traits to his or her offspring. Modern genetic engineering is just a more accurate, complete, and more efficient way of doing this. Although there is a need for regulation of this kind of development and though it shouldn't be taken lightly, there are few logical and realistic arguments for the complete rejection of this technology.

Perhaps the most imminent controversy surrounding genetic technology is that of genetically modified organisms (GMO's) in agriculture. This technology basically involves altering the genetic code of food organisms to decrease input and increase output. By genetically modifying food organisms, the nutrition of the organisms can be increased while they can be raised in a way that decreases energy consumption and impact on the environment. Recently, however, there has been concern with the negative health and environmental implications of GMO's. Most of these can be avoided with precautionary measures and a modicum of foresight. For example, recently there was a recall on a food product made from genetically modified corn. The genetic code of this corn contained information from bacteria that makes it poisonous to a certain species of insect and could possibly cause an allergic reaction in some individuals. To some, this is an indication of the dangers associated with genetic engineering and proof that it should be avoided. However, this is really an example of bad corporate policy, not of bad science. Any product that is understood so little should not be sold without more research, testing, or even labeling. In addition, many of the bacteria being studied for this technology are already sprayed on crops in large amounts. It is hard to believe that the same chemical, produced by different organisms could somehow have different effects warranting different regulation.

Most people look straight at the problems of this scenario and fail to see the benefits and how a better marketing policy would have made this situation avoidable. Genetically modifying food organisms is a very effective way to lower the cost and increase the quality of foods. Given more time, the company responsible for this strain of corn could have improved it so it was known to be safe, yet still resistant to the insect. This would decrease the use of insecticides, which, so far, have shown to be far more dangerous that any genetically modified organism. There are other benefits to genetically modified agriculture that far outweigh the potential costs, which can be avoided. Also, many current fears are unfounded and are based only on the imagination of those who oppose genetic progress.

. A related argument against GMO's is that one plant containing the genetic material from another may carry the same ability to cause an allergic reaction in certain individuals. For example, a corn plant containing genes from soy that make it contain more protein may also enable the plant to create allergic reactions in those who are allergic to soy. This does not mean that there will only be GMO corn available in the future. This will simply allow those who aren't allergic to soy to obtain more nutrients from the same diet. Compare this to way food companies process different foods on the same equipment. The company labels its products to alert customers that the food they are about to eat many contain trace amounts of food to which they are allergic. There is a potential for danger, but it is readily avoidable. If these products were not labeled, the same outcome could ensue. Should these companies buy and maintain separate facilities for each and every type of product they make? This would only increase the cost for those who aren't allergic and give those who are allergic another reason not to buy the product. As long as consumers know what they are getting, there is no reason why the benefits of this new concept should not be had. As our already large population continues to grow, we will need to use this technology to grow the amount and quality of food that will be necessary to adequately feed the human population.

There are many aspects of GMO's that are beneficial to the environment as well. Currently, there are GMO's that possess insect resistance, viral resistance, and fungal resistance. This means that some crops can be grown without the use of chemicals that may be harmful to the environment. Many ecologists believe that creating insect resistant GMO's will cause insects to adapt to the plants and the resistance will be negated. This is believed because a similar phenomenon was actually observed with the overuse of antibiotics. Bacteria are quickly adapting to our antibiotics and gaining resistance to them. However, there is no concrete evidence that these insects will adapt as quickly as bacteria, some of which have a reproductive doubling time of twenty minutes. Insects, whose doubling time is much longer, would take an incredibly long time to adapt to such a situation. In addition, if a species of insect can become resistant to a chemical produced by a GMO, it can most likely become resistant to the same chemical when manufactured by man. In other words, genetically engineering the organism to produce this substance is not what environmentalists object to. They really object to the use of the chemical itself, which, there will probably be no regulation of.

Another fear of ecologists is that genetically engineered organisms will be released into the wild and allowed to ruin the natural populations. To make sure that GMO plants do not get released into the wild and pollute natural populations with engineered genes, a new technology is being developed. "Terminator genes?are inserted into the plant which make it infertile and thus unable to breed with natural plants. Similar technology could be used with animals and bacteria. This demonstrates the multiple capabilities of genetic engineering; any problem associated with it can be easily corrected with a small amount of time, creativity, and research.

Similarly, advantages of genetic development in medicine are boundless. Once the human genome is completely understood and we are able to manipulate it, many current medical problems will be solved. However, many see this as the most frightening aspect of the genetic revolution. Yet, much of the medicine we have now is based on the understanding of the genetic code of organisms such as bacteria and fungus as well the non-living entities, viruses. For example, the manipulation of bacterial DNA allows us to get large amounts of insulin and penicillin from microorganisms at a much lower cost than previously. Developments concerning the human genome will only expand this medical ability. Many others fear the breech of privacy that mapping the human genome may bring. However, with the potential loss of privacy comes the potential to correct the genetic mistakes that have been programmed into one's body.

Large groups of people believe that this technology will produce an onslaught of cloned human beings. Although recent developments, such as the cloning of other animals, demonstrate this possibility, only a small minority believes that whole human organisms should be cloned. True, human organs could be cloned for transplants, but the widespread opposition to cloning entire humans will prevent it from happening while the beneficial research and development concerning the human genome will be allowed to proceed. A related topic, the production of genetically modified human beings is a bit more realistic. However, the ability to do this is a necessary byproduct of the aforementioned beneficial technology and it is unlikely that this will ever become commonplace.

An extreme example of modifying a human being is the creation of "designer babies? by altering one's germline (the genes passed to offspring) genes. Many fear that this will only increase the gap between the upper class and the rest of the world by allowing them to create healthier, smarter, better-looking babies. Such a technology would be too risky for individuals to take into their own hands. It is unrealistic to think that such an act could happen without the intervention of others. Again, this is a scenario born out of the fear of those who oppose the progress of genetics. This technology is too useful in others ways to discard it because of such a fear. There are many possibilities for engineering the human genome. Understanding and being able to manipulate the human genome will enable us to do things that will help mankind on individual and societal levels.

Already, genetic screening is used to detect the presence of abnormalities in fetuses, which if allowed to develop, may create a suffering, possibly very short life. Various kinds of gene therapy are being researched to cure many of the physical and psychological problems that plague our society. It would be a fantastic breakthrough to eliminate diseases like Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, or cystic fibrosis. Should we place the future generations at risk for these genetic disorders because we fear the consequences that we've seen in science fiction movies?

By eliminating psychological disorders at the genetic level, we will reduce the chance of future afflictions as well as the costs to society. Many psychological disorders have, or are believed to have, a genetic basis. By eliminating these genetically, a great service will be done to the individuals who will have otherwise been afflicted with the disorder. Society will also benefit from such a technology. Many violent crimes are carried out because the individual who committed the crime suffered from an abnormal psychological condition. These could be reduced with some kind of genetic manipulation. Other, more frequently encountered problems, such as alcoholism, drug dependency, and depression could also be attacked with such a technology. It would be a crime to ignore such positive potential just to eliminate the possibility that some individuals may want to genetically engineer their offspring to be more beautiful or that some employers may be so nosy that they would require DNA screening as part of the application process.

This brings us to another example of the frenzied conceptions about human gene technology: that of insurance companies or potential employers analyzing one's DNA. Some believe that insurance companies will do this to screen for health risks so they can charge higher rates for individuals in a higher risk category. It is also believed that companies will do this to determine if a potential employee is "genetically fit?to work in the company. It is preposterous to believe that there will be no governmental regulation of such issues. Again, there is no proof this will happen and this is not a problem with the technology, but with the companies exploiting it.

In summary, most of the opposition to the genetic revolution is based on fears, not facts. Also, the problems predicted by those who oppose are generally not problems with the technology itself, but with the regulation and exploitation of this technology. There is a way to solve any problem associated with genetic engineering. Much like cars have been improved upon to make them safer and laws have been passed to regulate this safety, the field of genetics must be regulated, too. However, ignoring a technology with such promise would a decision that would later be regretted. It is obvious that the human race has reached a point where we can no longer rely solely upon the bounty of "nature? to support us. We have already changed nature to an almost irreversible state and with our rapidly increasing human population, it would be impossible to live without this technology. We are part of nature and it has become necessary for us to manipulate our environment to support our species.

Sources

Anderson, Luke. Genetic Engineering, Food, and Our Environment. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont. 1999.

Borger, Julian. "Who's Testing Our Genes- and Why?? September 19, 2000 The Guardian Unlimited Website, http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/genes

Burley, Justine. The Genetic Revolution and Human Rights. Oxford University Press, New York. 1999.

MSNBC Staff and Wire Reports. "Kraft stops making taco shells with corn lacking OK for humans; Taco Bell also responds? September 22, 2000. MSNBC Website. http://www.msnbc.com/news

Shakespeare, Tom.

"Brave New World (II)" January 5, 2000. The Guardian Unlimited Website, http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/genes

Stock, G. and Campbell, J. Engineering the Human Germline. Oxford University Press, New York. 2000.


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