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Genetic Engineering

The uneasiness felt by many people about Genetic Engineering is founded in ignorance, especially when it comes to the area of genetics. To many people genetic engineering is a great cause for concern as this technology is based on manipulating the very stuff of which all organisms are made. Here lies the problem. Do we have the moral right to be "fiddling" with the creations of nature even if there are benefits to be had?

No one person, not even the scientist, can positively say where this technology is going to lead or what consequences we can expect, if any. Does this mean we should stop all research in this area until we understand more? If so, how are we to discover more without using this technology? We need to have a balanced point of view before any major decisions can be made and the only way of gaining that point of view is through education......... education about both the beneficial and the hazardous possibilities that are known about genetic engineering. When it comes to altering biological organisms, especially human genes, we are surely owed that so we at least understand what it is the scientist are attempting to achieve. Ignorance leads to fear, education would hopefully bring enlightenment and enable people to have a say in what is being done and also prevent any person or government from using this technology to harm others.

Hitler had a 'dream' which most of the world seen as a nightmare. He attempted to produce a 'super race' via a breeding program to gain the result he desired. This is one of the various fears of the layperson regarding genetic engineering. Will our scientists, or governments for that matter, try and manipulate the human race for their own benefit? Although this is not quite possible at the moment it could be one day and here again people need to be educated so that they understand the limits of this technology. The human body is a very complex machine and scientists can manipulate only a few genes with any success. It will therefore be a very long time before we need worry about scientists producing armies of genetically engineered humans each with preset specifications to be used for such things as cannon fodder, scientists, opera singers, artists or any number of other possibilities.

Since the creation of this new technology scientists have realised the potential for harm and have effectively regulated themselves. In Australia there are several committees, such as the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee and Institutional Biosafety Committees, with the aim of reducing possible risk to an acceptable level. Scientists see that there are moral responsibilities involved in their industry and have taken steps to honour those responsibilities. However, there are always those who believe the end justifies the means and that is a basic problem which needs to be addressed.

As with any new technology there are benefits and there are hazards involved. Some of the benefits include;

control of insect pests which cause great damage to various sections of the agricultural industry, such as the genetically altered sheep blowfly to cause sterility and other defects in the subsequent population,

introduction of natural predators (biological control) such as the Cactoblastis cactorum (moth) to control Prickly Pear and parasitic wasps to limit the damage done by cabbage moths,

production of essential biochemicals needed to treat certain diseases such as insulin for diabetes, growth & anti-growth hormones for dwarfism & gigantism and interferon which has been shown to be effective against viruses and a possible cure for cancer. It has also raised hopes of the treatment of many other diseases like MS and a possible quick cure for the common cold,

improved diagnostic techniques for detecting genetic diseases in embryo's.

Some of the possible hazards include;

risk of escape of entirely new organisms with the potential to harm other organisms,
there are 2 major themes of life - *prokaryotes eg E coli, and the **eukaryotes eg ourselves. These two lines have been separate for eons and barriers to free flow of genetic information have sprung up (exception of viruses). Genetic engineering purposely and wilfully penetrates those barriers and uses DNA from these two realms,

genetic engineers are becoming less awed by what they do and this has the potential to prevent them from continuing to see the moral and ethical problems which may arise,

biological warfare : because this is dealing with a bio-organism very little material is needed to begin with, making it easier to distribute,

the ownership by patent of biological material which should belong to everybody and the possible consequences of that ownership such as clones with no rights as individuals.

These benefits and hazards need to be examined carefully before our scientists travel too far into the realm of genetics but their progress should not halt altogether, only be inhibited a little until a better understanding of the consequences is reached. After all, do we wish to live in fear and not progress or do we need to take risks to gain the benefits of this new science? If all progress were halted before we understood the full potential we would not be where we are today. As Dr. David Tribe from the University of Melbourne says, "If genetically engineered organisms are inherently dangerous then no natural organism can be considered safe because they all undergo a form of natural genetic engineering."

*Prokaryote - living things that do not contain a distinct nucleus.
**Eukaryote - major class of living things, often considered to be more highly organised than prokaryotes. They possess a well-defined nucleus which contains the DNA.

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Copyright Sherrie Thompson 1999
all rights reserved

Posted 4 May 1999