Abstract

This paper aims to compare and contrast the benefits and dangers of biotechnology. Various videos, texts and articles were analyzed and the results are discussed. The views of several of people within and outside the scientific community were taken in consideration. This paper also aims to maintain an element of neutrality while simultaneously examining the issue with respect to various stakeholders. The path forward is also discussed in the conclusion.

The Pros and Cons of Genetic Modification And the Path to the Future

Since ancient times humans have always worked to further their own means. [1] They razed forests and cleared pastures as they pleased. They domesticated wild birds and wolves into pigeons and dogs. Humans have selected plants and bred them into several varieties – the wild cabbage being one such example. In their search for usefulness in nature humans have unknowingly influenced the natural flow of evolution. [2]In recent times, humans have found ways to manipulate organisms and force them into taking desirable qualities. One such example is the development of the ‘Flavr Savr’ Tomato which is resistant to rotting due to the blocking of the gene essential for fruit ripening. This form of modification has also disrupted the flow of evolution. So, what’s the difference between the two examples? The former is actually a game of chance and only aims to direct the already existing methodology of variation, (a consequence of meiosis), while the latter involves changing the genetic constitution of organisms directly. In this article we shall not be discussing the effect of the former, more subtle and slow paced change, and will be focusing direct approach and its implications.

How it all began

In 1972, Paul Berg of Stanford University managed to splice and introduce the gene of the SV-40 virus into a bacterium with the help of a lambda phage. He called this process genetic engineering and gave birth to what is now called biotechnology. The main principle of genetic engineering is the ability to break the genome at certain sites with the help of certain enzymes called restriction endonucleases and transfer them into the genome host either directly or with the help of an extra chromosomal vector such as a plastid. [3]While this process has many advantages such as the ability to cure diseases and increase yield it also has the potential to cause unintended side effects. It also raises many moral and ethical questions. Transgenic plants [4] are plant species which have been genetically modified with the introduction of foreign genes. Agrobacterium tumefaciens is used predominantly in this process due to the presence of a plasmid. [5]Out of the many uses of transgenic plants is the prominence of insect resistant plants. Bacillus thuringiensis produces proteins that kill insects such as flies and mosquitoes. The plant protein does not affect the bacterium itself as it produced in the inactive state and is activated by the alkaline pH of insect guts. Genes responsible for this protein were isolated and incorporated into plants to produce Bt cotton, Bt corn, Bt tobacco and Bt aubergine. Another use is the production of Golden Rice that contains the gene required for the production of β-carotene (provitamin A) which is synthesized into vitamin A. The development of herbicide resistant and stress tolerant plants is also possible to transgenic plants. Plants that absorb heavy metals are also engineered. These methods do have their disadvantages. Insect resistant plant varieties cause adverse side-effects in unrelated organisms. For example, monarch caterpillars die on consumption of milkweed plants exposed to the pollen of Bt corn. [6]Another concern is that the genetically modified crops can breed with weeds leading to herbicide resistant weeds. The development of pesticide resistant insects due to natural selection is also a cause for concern. In humans, produce from these plants may cause allergies and also confer antibiotic resistance to bacteria within the body. The fear of corporations exploiting the populace for profit is also existent.

Molecular Farming[7]

The extraction of products from transgenic plants and animals is called molecular farming. With the right genes plants and animals can be used as bioreactors to produce milk, antibodies, blood, hormones, wool, meat, hirudin[8] and other products in large quantities.

Other Examples

Transgenic microbes are used to produce various proteins, fuels, vitamins and vaccines. They also aid in the removal of lignin from fruit pulp and in the breakdown pollutants in the soil (bioremediation). Transgenic mice are used as test subjects in the lab and transgenic pigs are used to grow spare parts for humans. Transgenic fish can grow larger and transgenic dogs can assist people. One of biotechnology’s other uses is the production of terminator seeds which are sterile, thus reducing the chances of pesticide and herbicide resistance. However this would need farmers to buy new seeds every year. It can also be used to favor the birth of one sex of babies of the other. The development of mosquitoes with dominant malaria and zika resistant genes is also gaining popularity. [9]All these examples are wide and varied, but they all affect the gene pool in a permanent way and are averse to nature in some way or the other.

Relevance to Humans

The principles of biotechnology can be used to detect and cure various disorders. This process is called Gene Therapy. While the detection of any disease is possible, curing of diseases whose factors are controlled by more than one gene such as sickle cell anaemia is not yet possible. However breakthroughs occur every day and the day is not far off when humanity is rid of these diseases. A more controversial topic is the editing of the human genome which was thought to be extremely expensive until a few years ago when CRIPSR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) was discovered. This revolutionary breakthrough can be used to remove and add nitrogenous base pair sequences to DNA in an effective manner by using Cas-9[10] a protein found in bacteria. Even though CRIPSR is not yet fully understood, human trials have already been sanctioned and therefore in extraordinary breakthroughs are expected in a few years.  

Ethical Concerns

The problem of over reach is also a deterrent. If the use of CRISPR to cure diseases is ethical, why can’t it be used to make people stronger or smarter? There is no check preventing the rise of a superhuman army. Another controversy is the bio patent. Many of the patents issued are too broad, prohibiting any further research. For example, one patent covers the entire Brassica family. Another such patent, which was later challenged and removed, prevented anyone in the US from using turmeric for wound healing. Brazzein – a protein in a West African Plant, which is 2000 times as sweet as sugar was patented in the US. Bio warfare is the development of microbes and toxins that can be sprayed on a large basis and cause large scale disease in humans, plants and animals. Anthrax, Small Pox and Q-Fever are some colorless, tasteless and odorless examples.

Conclusion

The most concerning ethical problem is the lack of regulation and the question of whether it is right for humans to modify what nature has created over so many years. The fear that some diverse traits will be forcibly removed from the gene pool is also a worry for some.The way forward must not prevent any of this wonderful research. Instead it must ethically regulate this art and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.

References

·Trueman’s Elementary Biology – Volume 2·Will Genetic Modification Create Perfect Humans? – Life Noggin (YouTube)·Genetic Engineering Playlist - Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell (YouTube)·Biologist Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty - CRISPR (YouTube)·The Perils and Promises of Gene-Drive Technology - By Michael Specter (Newyorker)·Chinese scientists to pioneer first human CRISPR trial – By David Cyranoski (Nature)·First CRISPR clinical trial gets green light from US panel – By Sara Reardon (Nature)·CRISPR: Gene editing is just the beginning – By Heidi Ledford (Nature)·CRISPR Patent Wars: How to Claim a Cure –By Juliet Childers (Edgy Labs)


Bibliography

[1] Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene

[2] Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species

[3] Enzymes called ligases are used to join the cut ends of DNA.

[4] Transgenic refers to organisms with unrelated genetic material in their genome.

[5] The tumour causing properties of the Ti plasmid are eliminated.

[6] Nature magazine performed this experiment in lab conditions.

[7] Recombinant proteins are those proteins produced by transgenes.

[8] Hirudin is a potent anti-coagulant.

[9] Mosquitoes with disease resistant genes that express character even in a heterozygous state (not all alleles are similar) have been engineered.

[10] Cas-9 is a protein complex in bacteria that scans genetic material and searches for matches of viral genome with the help of guide RNA molecules. It then cuts out the genetic material saving the bacterium. This can be used for any genetic modification.