The term ‘genetic engineering’ is frequently used in public discourse, but what does it mean?
Genetic engineering, sometimes referred to as genetic modification, is the process of making amends to the DNA of an organism’s genome. This might vary from changing one base pair to deleting a whole region of DNA. Other times, it may just include bringing in the use of an additional copy of a specific gene. It could also mean extracting DNA from an organism and combining it with the DNA of another individual to form a new organism.
Today, genetic modification is being used by scientists to enhance or modify the characteristics of a particular organism.
How does genetic engineering affect the average person?
Genetic engineering is steadily becoming a worldwide phenomenon. When it comes to food and crops, it is almost impossible to avoid genetically processed goods these days, especially in developed countries. Be it fruits or vegetables, there is no escaping genetic modification in the produce aisle.
In the past, application of this notion led to the creation of the first genetically modified organism. This was a bacterium created in 1973. Later, in 1974, the same methodology and concepts were applied on mice. Soon after, 1994, the first genetically modified foods were made available for public consumption.
Do these products help?
Gene modification provides treatment for some serious and otherwise untreatable genetic diseases. Scientists are modifying viruses to deliver new genes that can host cells to treat the disease. These man-made viruses infect diseased cells and insert a correct copy of a defective gene, treating human disorders such as Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID).
However, with the colossal progress of this technology, many animal rights groups argue that the production of transgenic animals will be harmful. Cows that are being injected with bST (Bovine somatotropin) to increase their milk yield suffer from infertility, infection of udders, and mastitis.
Additionally, if pregnant women eat genetically modified products, it may endanger the offspring. Environmentalists have stated that, due to natural selection, insects develop resistance to transgenic plants and, in 2002, the National academy for Sciences called for a legal ban on human cloning.
Important objections to genetic engineering are:
- Genetic engineering is against the supernatural order. God has created a set of genes for humans that are what we should have.
- Engineered creatures will suffer from obsolescence, and will be non-human, alienated creatures, who won’t have any sense of the human race.
- It is a version of eugenics and evokes memories of Nazi Germany and America in the 20th century, often advocated are such practices as selective breeding, forced sterilization of “defectives” and “undesirables” (people with disabilities, different races, minorities, ethnic groups or homosexuals) and euthanasia of such populations.
With the advent of CRISPR, it seems possible to edit out mutations and create babies without the disease. Yet, the matter of consent is raised by Francis Collins, director of NIH, “Ethical issues presented by altering the germ-line in a way that affects the next generation without their consent.”
Genetic engineering, however, has also proved to be successful. For instance, microorganisms produce insulin, growth hormones, proteins, and other pharmaceuticals that help cater to patients with diabetes. Crops and stock animals are engineered to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides, and also to have higher and reliable yields. It may also cure COVID-19 alongisde diseases like cancer.
Gene therapy is becoming a reality as quickly as one can read about it. However, it will forever be a point of controversy and conflict, leading to confirmed debates. In any case, caution must be exercised.