Genetic Engineering From An Innovation And Ethical Perspective Biology Essay

Corbin B. Butson

Abstract – The term ‘Genetic Engineering’ means simply, the deliberate modification of an organism’s characteristics by the manipulation, of that organism’s genetic code. However, when most people see Genetic Engineering they imagine mad science being conducted in a laboratory, this is partially correct. Genetic engineering falls under two separate categories natural husbandry (breeding), and direct genetic manipulation. Natural husbandry has been practiced for several thousand years, while direct manipulation has only been available since the early 1970s. From an innovation perspective this offers near limitless possibilities in terms of bio technological based research, however, from an ethical perspective this new innovative technology is not without its consequences. This paper will discuss Genetic Engineering in relation to its fields of innovation and the ethical debate surrounding the new use of this biotechnology.

I. Introduction

Genetic engineering (GE) has been used extensively since the dawn of human civilisation. For millennia humans have been practising artificial selection with breeding stocks to obtain desirable traits. Only recently, however, has genetic engineering become an ethical cause for concern to humanity. The innovation driving this discovery and subsequent innovation was the mapping of genomes. These new discoveries have allowed scientists to cause direct interventions on an organism’s genome. This process can create new artificially desirable traits. Currently most of the research into genetic engineering is related to food production, by modifying crops to withstand different environments, and within medical science, to artificially produce cures and disease resistance.

This tampering with the genome of organisms has sparked a debate on the consequences with tampering with evolution. Evolution is defined as being the process by which an organism has developed, acclimatised and diversified over time. By manipulating this process it is thought that scientists may through accident or intent change something fundamental that should not be changed. The result of which would possibly have serious repercussions for the species being modified, the species could for example suffer an evolutionary dead end die out or affect other similar species with undesirable modifications.

The first recorded genetically modified organism (GMO) was created 1973 as a bacterial organism. One year later animal trials began on mice producing genetically modified (GM) mice. This sparked some criticism over the early trials of this technology that was still in its infancy. However in 1980 it was discovered that GM bacteria were able to produce extremely large amounts of insulin and two years later the program was commercialised. This lead to the research into GM food stuffs with the goal of increasing production and shelf life of the product. These successful applications of genetic engineering have allowed further innovations and study into this still grey area of research.

II. What is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)?

A genetically modified organism is an organism that has had its genetic material modified through a process of genetic engineering. These organisms can be anything from micro-organisms to human beings. The term GMO while similar to the term legal ‘living modified organism’ (LMO) fall under different categories. Differentiations between these groups were defined by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety [1]. This international treaty agreement defines the movements of LMOs that were created from the use of biotechnology, with the purpose of safeguarding biological diversity from the risks of this technology and allowing the governments of different countries to make informed decisions based on a BMO’s implementation to the natural environment.

These GMOs are produced by a, mutation, insertion or deletion of genetic material. The genes that are used to give GMOs the unique properties often come from other species, by a process called horizontal gene transfer. Horizontal gene transfer is most easily achieved by inserting genetic material inside a developing zygote or the use of agro-bacterium in plants. Transferring new genetic material to a living organism is best achieved by a transmission virus, often called a retro-virus, which will mutate living cells within an organism. Unfortunately the use of retroviruses is inherently unstable due to most organisms’ immune systems changing the properties of the outcome and producing unpredictable results.

III. Uses of GMOs

Genetically modified organisms can be classed into two categories, novel and useful. Novel innovations are where scientists test their theories to prove hypothesises. These organisms serve no useful purpose to society. Useful applications however are often protected under intellectual property law. These applications stand to gain significant profits for the people involved in their production. Most pharmaceutical drugs are, for instance, produced are produced from artificial bacteria.

Useful GMOs fall under several categories:

Plants

Transgenic Plants: are plants that have been genetically altered to create new and different types of plants. Transgenic plants are created by changing, removing or adding specific genes to create a similar but new result.

An example of novel innovation is where a transgenic company based in Australia created the first blue rose through RNA interfacing. Another useful innovation is where an Israeli company created a transgenic plant that had the property of producing a treatment used in a treatment for Gaucher’s disease.

GM crops: is where crops are genetically engineered to produce desired properties, such as pest and environmental resistance. Other properties wanted mainly apply to the manufacture of the crop into a marketable product.

The other types of GM plants are of the Cisgenic plant group. Intragenesis is generally a natural process that involves crossbreeding similar species; this process is similar to the natural selective breeding of animals. However what genetic engineering advances propose to achieve is to speed up this process through artificial means.

Microbes

These bacteria were the first organisms to ever be subject to genetic engineering. This was mainly done due in part to their simple genetic structure. Today microbes are used primarily in genetic engineering to produce significant amounts of proteins, geared at humans, for use in the medical industry.

The first useful microbes to undergo GM were microbes that produced insulin to treat diabetes. Similar microbes are used to produce other proteins, enzymes and hormones that would otherwise be difficult to obtain in sufficient levels through other means

Mammals

Everyone’s favourite ethical issue Mammalian testing; this is one of the major ethical concerns of animal rights groups. However mammals, specifically mice, are a comparatively simple organism to track and monitor changes in bio-makeup when subject to GE processes. These mammals are used most often to model human diseases. All GM animals, including mammals, fall under six categories:

Research human diseases

To produce significant products for industry and consumption

To produce therapeutic products

To improve how an animal interacts with a human

To improve production output on animal based foods

To improve the disease resistance on animals

Insects

Currently the study on insects is threefold: modelling genetic changes, reducing viral transmissibility and sterilization. However the most important function of GM is the reduction of viral transmissibility. An example of this is where male mosquitoes have been modified to reduce the possibility of transmitting malaria to humans, potentially saving hundreds and thousands of lives. In 2010 trials were conducted within the Cayman Islands there was an over 80% drop in reported cases of dengue fever [2] within the testing area. However it is not yet known what the long-term effect to the ecosystem will be.

Humans

Gene therapy is where a retro-virus is used to deliver genes that could possibly cure or treat diseases in humans. The possibility also exists to repair genes that are damaged or missing in genetic disorders. This relatively new innovation has successfully treated severe combined immunodeficiency [3] and several other ‘incurable’ diseases. The other side of the coin is where GE can affect the unborn foetus and produce desirable enhancements. This avenue of research is highly controversial as it is believed to intervene on the natural evolution of a already sentient species.

Genetic modification may yet solve most of the world’s current problems, or it may create greater problems that it solves.

IV. The Immediate Benefits of GMOs to society

This research paper briefly discussed how certain types of GMOs are classed and their uses, in this section we will look at how proteins are manufactured in a laboratory environment.

A protein is a nitrogenous organic compound that is constructed from amino acids to form molecules. These protein molecules are present in all know species that cannot photosynthesise. Proteins can come in many forms including, collagen, haemoglobin antibodies and enzymes. Basically proteins are required for most carbon based life to function.

The primary reason bacterial GMOs were first created was to produce a significant and steady supply of proteins for medical purposes. The first innovation of this technology was the production of large quantities of insulin. This was a high priority project due to the large expense of obtaining insulin for diabetic treatments at the time as insulin could only be obtained from pigs, cattle and human cadavers [4]. Insulin its self is created by humans in their pancreas. However by combining the original insulin extracted from the human body with the bacteria Escherichia coli found in the intestine it became possible to grow insulin inside a laboratory. These bacterial cells were produced inside a bioreactor where the cells were able to grow under the specific conditions that are required to create proteins. By 1982 this was achieved and artificially created insulin became commercially available under patent law.

This is one of the success stories of genetic engineering, where there were no ethical concerns for providing humans with artificial insulin. Other therapeutics and enzymes are also created through this process. However this is the only form of genetic engineering where community has no prejudice as it is only producing something in large quantities that already exists; we are not mutating an complex organism to (hopefully) produce desirable effects.

V. Possible Repercussions of Wide-scale Implementation

In most other forms of genetic engineering there exists a concern that we do not yet know the full consequences of wide-scale genetic manipulation has on the environment. Certain Biotech firms, at home and overseas, have been producing GM crops modified for different environmental conditions. These genetically modified products promise improvements such as increased yield, efficiency (in fertiliser, water and insecticide usage), and the ability to produce therapeutic properties. However these products often fall short of their intended goals. The union of concerned scientists reported findings on several types of drought resistant crops, and discovered that the modified crops fell short of expected results. Some of these reports are listed below.

Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops (2009)

No Sure Fix: Prospects for Reducing Nitrogen Fertilizer Pollution through Genetic Engineering (2009)

High and Dry: Why Genetic Engineering is Not Solving Agriculture's Drought Problem in a Thirsty World (2012)[5]

These reports each define how GM crops have not improved their yields and critical requirements.

It is important to realise however that continuing study and innovate in the field genetic engineering is critical, The technology just has not reached the point where the artificial method can cause greater improvements than more traditional methods of crop breeding. Genetic engineering is important in identifying specific gene types that could improve these problems, through traditional breeding methods.

It should also be noted that this technology can cause GM crops to pass over their acquired traits to other forms of plant life through natural breeding methods. This has become a problem not a benefit. These new structures in the plant DNA can cause them to breed with weeds and other parasitic species. There have been cases of ‘Superweeds’ reported in areas of the US where herbicide tolerant GM crops were tested. The crops passed their acquired gene onto the local fauna also making these plants herbicide tolerant. This had the added affect of causing more herbicide to be used to saturate the area and exterminate these abominations. This example highlights why a cautious approach to genetic engineering should always be used with the introduction of any GMO in any environment.

VI. Ethical Concerns over Genetic Modification and Testing in Humans

Like all forms of science, Genetic Engineering is open to extreme abuse. The concern is that humans will eventually and subtly begin a program of genetic modification, with the goal of obtaining new and desirable genetic code. This would likely give rise to genetic inequality. On the other hand the potential benefits of overcoming human frailty quickly appear appealing to some groups within society. The process of genetic modification would begin with genetic screening and testing. Strangely enough, this form of GE evokes a split response in the public forum. Danielle Simmons’s paper on Genetic Inequality shows that "diagnostic testing supplies the technical ability to test pre-symptomatic, at-risk individuals and/or carriers to determine whether they will develop a specific condition. This sort of testing is a particularly attractive choice for individuals who are at risk for diseases that have available preventative measures or treatments, as well as people who might carry genes that have significant reproductive recurrence risks." [6] Other studies into non disease genetic testing have been conducted into how genetics affects the way people act and operate within society. Such a study was conducted where several scientists conducted several muscle tests that were aimed at mapping muscle traits and genetic predispositions. The participants after the testing rounds were told what their genetic predispositions were and it was found that the affirmative group were more likely to view the changes as outside their control, while the negatives received a sense of empowerment from the test results [6]. However one major concern developed with the testing of many non disease traits, some of the participants who had negative results began to develop self-image issues and/or inferiority complexes. In genetics many attributes are attributed to racial disposition (Caucasians are generally taller than those of Asian descent). Bioethicists believe that the disclosure of other similar racial genomes may create further sociological and ethnic issues. This example of social science shows how critical bioethics is in establishing acceptable boundaries regarding research.

Other ethical concerns arise from the doping of athletes. Doping in sport is where an athlete abuses science in an attempt to gain advantages over their competitors. These drugs that the athletes consume were initially developed to treat the diseases of patients. However this was just the start, now after the introduction of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999, the abusers of science have begun to receive gene-doping. Gene-doping is specifically where an athlete receives new genetic elements that would enhance their performance by increasing the levels of hormones and proteins within their bodies. As of yet no true negative abnormalities have been discovered as a direct or indirect product of gene-doping, which begs the question should the human species explore this research, or should we as a species draw a line on non therapeutic gene therapies.

The most controversial and ethical concern within the realm of genetic engineering is the potential for designer babies. Many groups show both anticipation and concern with the identification of non-disease based genomes. Eventually (if not already), it will be possible to implant embryos with desirable genetic code targeting specific sequences relating to eye, hair and skin colour, muscle potential, cognitive and reasoning skills and other attributes. This would lead to the creation of artificial genetics within unborn children. From this we can see that trait selection raises moral issues. Would this change the genetic resistance to disease or would this addition cause serious health problems or even would this altered human be superior in every way to an unaltered human. There is the reasonable belief that genetic manipulation could give rise to a genetic aristocracy or a new human faction, creating further divides within society. On the other hand, allowing problematic diseases and or behavioural disorders (epilepsy, dyslexia and other learning disorders) to be removed before child birth is an attractive prospect to almost all parties. So we as scientists and engineers are left with the question, where should we draw the line when these and other issues ever arise?

VII. Conclusion

Genetic engineering is an amazing innovation created by scientists. It allows humanity to create genetically modified organisms that can perform a wide variety of tasks such as the creation of proteins such as insulin, which is used to treat diabetes as well as other medical issues. Other aspects of the technology allow for the genetic reconstruction of DNA which can cure previous non curable diseases and how we can modify plants for desirable traits. However the technology is not without its controversy. Genetic engineering can also be used to enhance, not heal. Athletes that wish for better performance without extensive training use gene-therapy to improve their hormone and protein levels, or designer children who have desirable genes injected inside the developing embryo. There is also the adverse effects of creating resistant crops that interbreed with weeds, making these ‘super weeds’ very difficult to eradicate. So where do we draw the line? Should we change ourselves because we can, or should we let our environments dictate our evolution? It is my belief that genetic engineering should still be researched as it can improve societies problems significantly, but we should be cautious when implementing enhancements to crops or people as there is no recall once the precedent is established or the organisms released into the environment..

VIII. References

[1] Diversity, C. o. B. (2003). "About the Protocol." Retrieved 19/4, 2012, from http://bch.cbd.int/protocol/background/.

[2] Harris, A. F.; Nimmo, D.; McKemey, A. R.; Kelly, N.; Scaife, S.; Donnelly, C. A.; Beech, C.; Petrie, W. D. et al. (2011). "Field performance of engineered male mosquitoes". Nature Biotechnology 29 (11): 1034–1037. doi:10.1038/nbt.2019.PMID 22037376

[3] Harris, A. F.; Nimmo, D.; McKemey, A. R.; Kelly, N.; Scaife, S.; Donnelly, C. A.; Beech, C.; Petrie, W. D. et al. (2011). "Field performance of engineered male mosquitoes". Nature Biotechnology 29 (11): 1034–1037. doi:10.1038/nbt.2019.PMID 22037376

[4] Wood, M. (2004). "Making proteins by genetic engineering." Retrieved 1/5, 2013, from http://www.biotechlearn.org.nz/themes/cell_biology_and_genetics/making_proteins_by_genetic_engineering.

[5] Union_Of_Concerned_Scientists (2012). "Genetic Engineering in Agriculture." Genetic Engineering. Retrieved 1/5, 2013, from http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/.

[6] Danielle Simmons, PhD. (2008) Genetic Inequality: Human Genetic Engineering. Nature Education Edition 2008 Genetics and Society, http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/genetic-inequality-human-genetic-engineering-768