Introduce the topic of genetic engineering in casual conversation and the       conversation seizes to be casual.  Suddenly there is a contest of speakers.  Several points of views on the matter advanced with “proof”; each trying to sound more emphatic and convincing than the other.  For some, genetic engineering is a scientific breakthrough that can help address food deficiency and health issues.   For others, the science is tantamount to Frankenstein; the creation of a monster that cannot be controlled and eventually brings ruination (American College Dictionary).  There also some that argue along religious beliefs; maintaining that genetic engineering is nothing more than man’s attempt at playing God. 

     The purpose of this blog is to engage in an informed discussion of genetic engineering.  The blog will explore three fields where genetic engineering is used:   agriculture, medicine and sports.  In each of the areas, the pros and cons will be discussed. Two key questions will also be explored:  Is genetic engineering regulated?  What are the guidelines?  To conclude, the moral implications of genetic engineering will be examined. 

Genetic Engineering in Agriculture

            How do we feed all the people in the world?  For hundreds of years, there has been anxiety that our numbers might outstrip food supply (Evans, xi).  With genetic engineering technology, developing countries can look at ways of producing more food.  It makes it possible to combine characteristics from genetically different plants and to incorporate desired traits into crop lines and animals, producing transgenic, or more commonly known as genetically modified (GM), varieties (Wright 306). 

            Two of the more widely accepted genetically altered products to be marketed are corn and soybeans that are resistant to Roundup (chemically, glyphosate).  The chemically resistant crops allow farmers to use a no till technique.  One of the more exciting developments in biotechnology is sorghum (an important African Crop).  This plant is resistant to a parasitic plant known as witch weed, which infects many crops in Africa.   Other GM crops include corn, potatoes and cotton resistant to insects, rice that is resistant to bacterial blight disease and trees that grows very rapidly. 

            Biotechnology in agriculture is used to address another challenge faced by the world’s growing population – finding clean energy sources.  Along with addressing food insecurity, the technology is being used as a strategy for biofuel production in China (Xie, G., Peng, L. 2011).  Over the past three decades, a fossil-energy based economy has been booming in China.  As a result, its energy consumption has doubled and has made China the second biggest energy consumer in the world. 

            The report by Xie and Peng explain that biomass utilization is increasingly considered as a practical way for sustainable energy supply and long-term environment care around the world.  In China, because of food security concerns, starch or sugar-based bioethanol and edible-oil-derived biodiesel are harshly restricted for large scale production.  Using food residues from food crops would be a potential alternative, but the biomass process is unacceptably expensive.  Breeding energy crops is a promising solution.  Energy crops are defined by a high yield for both food and biofuel purposes.  Here we have agricultural engineering addressing two needs at once (food insecurity and clean energy).  For biofuel production, rice, wheat, maize, sorghum and miscanthus are elevated for biomass production.  The modification of plant cell walls is what leads to efficient biomass degradation and conversion. 

The Good

            China has emerged as a leader in plant biotechnology (Wright 307).  A recent notable accomplishment – they sequenced the rice genome.   As illustrated by China, biotech crop research can benefit developing countries.  Here are four goals of agricultural technology:

1)      To add resistance to diseases and pests that attach important tropical plants

2)      To increase tolerance to environmental conditions (such as drought & high salt levels)

3)      To improve nutritional value of commonly eaten crops

4)      To produce pharmaceutical products in ordinary crops

The environmental benefits of bioengineering are very important.  They include a reduction in the use of pesticides (because crops are already resistant to pests), less erosion (no tilling cropping is aided by herbicide resistant crops) and less environmental damage with bringing more land to production (existing agricultural land will bring more food).

 The Bad

            The benefits of BT crops are many; however, the concerns cannot be easily discounted.  A major environmental concern is environmental.  If pests are greatly exposed to the toxins or other resistance incorporated into a plant, there is always the possibility that they will develop resistance to the toxin (Wright 308).  This would render the toxin useless as an independent pesticide.  Another concern is ecological.  Pollen from BT crops can be spread to nearby areas where beneficial insects might pick at them and be killed by the toxins.   Also, because genes for herbicide resistance or tolerance to drought can be spread to ordinary crops, there is the possibility of creating new “super weeds”.

            Good safety issues are also a great concern.  Transgenic crops can contain proteins of different organisms triggering unexpected allergic responses.  For example, a Brazil nut gene added to soybeans was able to make a protein in soybeans that induced an allergic reaction in individuals allergic to Brazil nuts. 

 The Ugly

The UN recently declared that the famine in Somalia has ended, but warned that the crisis is not yet over (New York Times 2/4/2012).  The famine that killed tens of thousands in Somalia was precipitated by drought.  One would think places like Somalia (where the population is large and resources are limited) would be granted primary access to BT crops.  That is not the case.  In fact, access to the new technology is very limited to the developing world.  Almost all genetically modified organisms were developed by large agricultural firms and profit was the main motive (Wright 308).  Farmers have been forbidden by contract from propagating seeds for themselves and must buy the seeds annually. 

 Genetic Engineering – Medicine

            The treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is an area where genetic engineering can make a difference.  Ground breaking work in this area has been conducted by Nicholaos Robakis, a neurobiologist in Mount Sinai School of Medicine at NYU.  In an entry to the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (2006), Robakis gives a detailed account of how the group of scientists went about cloning DNA to try to understanding the causes of Alzheimer’s.  The scientists were able to obtain the the cDNA clones encoding amyloid-B (responsible for the disease) and also produced data showing the encoding gene was on chromosome 21.  Another Study (Sato, 1999) shows in detail how genetic testing and engineering was used to isolate/identify things that contribute to brain disease.   Both studies have vast implications for the diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s. 

            In clinical trials, researchers have found evidence indicating that transplanting genetically modified skin cells into the brain might slow the progression of the diseases (Asia Pacific Biotech News, 2004). The small study has shown that technique is safe to use and may reduce the mental decline that is typical of the degenerative disease.  A year later, patients that were treated showed the rate of mental decline was cut in half.  By comparison the drug therapies available, can offer a 5% decrease in the rate of decline. The clinical studies show that there are great benefits to genetic engineering in medicine, particularly in diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s. 

 The bad

            The bad here is linked to ethics particularly to the area of informed consent.  The American Geriatric Society cautions that geriatricians and counselors need to be cognizant of the challenges related to informed consent for genetic testing in older adults (2001).  Older adults attended school prior to the discovery of DNA and therefore may have a limited understanding of genetics concepts.  Geriatric health care professionals and genetic counselors need to consider this when explaining genetic testing to patients, and may need to adjust medical explanations, etc. as needed.  Also, patients who are affected with dementia may lack the capacity to give informed consent for genetic testing.  Although not explicitly stated by AGS, the concern here is that older adults may become participants in testing without any real consent.

            As exemplified by genetic testing in Alzheimer’s there is always a down side.  In 1988 scientists pinpointed a gene responsible for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (Behar 2004).  Children with muscular dystrophy lack the gene required to regulate dystrophin, a protein for muscle growth and stability.  Without the gene, the muscles wither and die.  The scientist’s plan was to introduce the dystrophin gene by hitching it to DNA of a virus that could transport genes into the cell.  In a series of experiments the scientists were able to inject the genes into mice and rats and saw how the damaged muscle cells repaired its self.   The insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I) was a proven, powerful hormone that promoted growth muscles.  The mice that had been treated with the hormone and made to exercise could lift 30% more weight and their muscle mass swelled by a third – double of the mice in the control group.

            Gene doping (the non-therapeutic use of genes) is a cited concern.  To be able to mimic the results is not that expensive, especially if it is going to a small population of athletes.  Gene doping is different from other performance enhancing techniques because human growth hormone takes place naturally in the body and speeds up cell division in many types of tissues.  Genetic modifications become a part of the DNA in targeted muscles.  The only way to prove that someone has experimented with gene doping is to biopsy a suspicious muscle – making it a night mare for sports officials trying to regulate doping.

Moral Implications

Many of the moral implications have been addressed throughout this review.   Here are some that are specifically cited in the prospect of human cloning (Miah, 27):

  1. The treating of an individual as a means to an end, rather than an end in him/herself, which goes against the Kantian maxim upon which human rights are based.
  2. Every human has a right to a unique genotype (against the prospect of cloning).
  3. Present genetic engineering techniques are so experimental that they are likely to inflict a degree of harm on the unborn life that is morally unacceptable.
  4. By engineering persons, we enact a form of eugenicide that will lead to the discrimination of or the devaluing of particular kinds of persons.
  5. The institutionalization of genetic technologies may lead to governments or business breeding qualities for their purpose
  6. Making public of genetic information may lead certain individuals to be disadvantaged and discriminated against; such might be the case with insurance or employment opportunities.

 Regulating Bodies

Here is a list of the agencies that regulate genetic engineering:

Cartagena Protocol – On the international level, the UN convention on Biodiversity – it deals with trade in genetically engineered organisms (Wright & Boorse  309).  The Cartagena protocol states that the “lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information… shall not prevent a country from taking a decision on the import of genetically modified organisms.  The protocol puts the right to deny entry of any of the organisms in the hands of the importing countries, but its decisions must be based on sound science.

EPA & USDA (in the United States) – all have regulatory oversight of different elements of the application of biotechnology to food crops. 

The National Academy of Sciences National Research Council – The council adequately tests for environmental and health effects of transgenic crops.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights – within the document, the agency urges for the application of such technology to respect human dignity and to ensure the protection of individuals from such effects as genetic discrimination (Miah, 2000).

Closing thoughts

   Genetic engineering can help improve the quality of life.   Research shows that the technology can be used to address food deficiency, for cleaner energy and in treating illeness.  As with anything else, the pros and cons of the technology must be carefully weighed.  If the necessary agencies worked tenaciously to protect and serve the public (domestically and globally), our society would be able to greatly benefit from this emerging science. 

     Works Cited

American Geriatric Society – Ethics Committee.  “Genetic Testing for Late-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease.”  JAGS  49. (2001): 225-226.

Asia Pacific Biotech Research Findings ANB 8.12 (2004).

Behar, Michael.  “Will Genetics Destroy Sports?” Discover 25.7 (2004): 40-45.

Evans, L.T.  Feeding the Ten Billion:  Plants and population growth.  Cambridge, U.K:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Gettleman, Jeffery.  “UN Says Somalia Famine has ended, but Warns Crises is not Over.” New York Times February 4, 2012.

Miah, Andy.  “The Engineered Athlete: Human Rights in the Genetic Revolution.”  Culture, Sport, Society 3.3 (2000): 25-40.

Robakis, Nicholaos, K.  “The Discovery and Mapping to Chromosome 21 of the Alzheimer’s Amylid Gene: History Revised.”  Journal of Azlheimer’s Disease 10 (2003): 453-455.

Sato, Naoya, et. al.  A Novel Presenilin-2 Splice Variant in Human Alzheimer’s Disease Brain Tissue.” Journal of Neurochemistry 72.6 (1999): 2498-2505.

Wright, Richard, T. and Boorse, Dorothy. F.  Environmental Science Toward a Sustainable Future.  11th ed.  San Francisco, CA:  Pearson Education, 2011.

Xie, Guasheng and Peng, Liangcai.  “Genetic Engineering of Energy Crops: A Strategy for Biofuel Production in China.”  Journal of Intergrative Plant Biology  53.2 (2011): 143-150.