• Issue 40 / October - December 2002

    Genetic Engineering's impact on our lives

    Habibe Erkin

    Humanity's efforts to control nature dates back as far as recorded history. However, our mastery over nature has given rise to serious concerns. Some see it as opposing God's word, while others see it as disturbing Mother Nature's delicate balance. One thing for certain, though, is that since every action has a reaction, we have to make sure that the benefits of technological progress outweigh any potential harm.

    Genetic engineering is one of the fastest developing fields of science. It continues to impact our lives in many ways: the Green Revolution, the quest for perfect animal stock, disease treatment, or human reproduction. But success also has brought concerns. Plants have become insect resistant and also more toxic. Genetically engineered cattle produce more milk but have mutated and overgrown. When scientists opened the window for asexual human reproduction, life became a commodity that could be produced in a culture dish.

    And it all started when a monk experimented with some sweet peas...

    From Mendel to Dolly

    Modern genetic engineering dates back to 1865, when the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel performed a series of experiments with sweet pea plants. These experiments led to changes in the plants' genetic construction. Genetic engineering, also known as bioengineering or recombinant DNA technology, is a general term referring to any alteration of an organism's genes in order to make them produce new substances or perform new functions.(1) During the following years, these little experiments developed into a new field. The genes of plants and small-sized organisms were altered through crossing, but other than that research was limited.

    In the 1930s, industrial corporations like America's Rockefeller Foundation or, 20 years later, Germany's Volkswagen Group (VW), discovered a different approach to raise economic efficiency. At the same time, motives of social control and surveillance directed the Rockefeller Foundation's interest in the human body to the individual and the collective levels.(2) The Rockefeller Foundation outlined its rationale for supporting genetic research as follows: For the last 100 years physics and chemistry have reigned supreme, and the question of human behavior had been neglected. The new goal was to accomplish social control through understanding and knowledge of the very basic elements of the human body.(3) With the promise of benefit for their own corporations, they started sponsoring this new subfield of biology. The National Institutes of Health, private corporations, institutes, and universities established research laboratories. The idea was that if more actors and institutions shared and exchanged knowledge, the more molecular biology's narration of life would be consolidated, disseminated, and legitimized.(4)

    Soon discoveries were reported from the science frontier. In 1953, M. Wilkins, F. Crick, and J. Watson discovered DNA's double helix model while working at the University of Cambridge in England. In 1962, they received the Nobel Prize for their discovery. In 1968 Nirenberg, Khorana and Holley received a Nobel Prize for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.(5)

    The first frogs were cloned in 1970. In other words, an artificial copy of their embryo was produced. Soon this fast developing field of biology turned into a new industrial sphere. In 1980, industrial biotechnology emerged after the Supreme Court case of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty. In this case, Chakrabarty engineered and wanted to patent a certain kind of organism. After his request was denied, he went to court and received a favorable ruling. This decision led to the establishment of copyrights for living organisms, which ultimately industrialized the field. Producing and patenting new organisms were two crucial factors in the biotech industry's development. Consider Steen Willadsen, who cloned the first sheep in 1984 from an embryo.(6) One year later, he mass-produced prize cattle embryos for Grenada Genetics in order to raise a perfect stock.(7) However, that project soon was stopped because of the cloned cattle's high and death rates and abnormal behavior.

    Since the biologic make-up of many mammals had been unveiled, scientists now had a new goal: exploring the human being. Therefore the U.S. Department of Energy launched the human genome project. Soon biotech giants like Celera and many private institutions got into the race. Their goal was to map the entire human genome in order to identify and eliminate disease-causing genes. This project raised certain concerns about what would be done with an individual's DNA information, who could access it (e.g., insurance companies and employers), and genetic discrimination.

    The first human embryos were cloned in 1993. Four years, later the whole world got to meet Dolly, the first sheep cloned from an adult cell. This was an important development, for it opened the door to asexual reproduction. But despite the great enthusiasm with this achievement, some people started wondering about possible dangers. Finally in June 2000, Bill Clinton announced the completion of the human genone project.

    Applications and drawbacks

    Genetic engineering has penetrated into various parts of our life. Agriculture has seen a Green Revolution. Herbicide-resistant plants were engineered to have built-in pesticide resistance and to convert nitrogen directly from the soil. By April 2002, the approximately 50,000 rice genes had been discovered. Scientists already are working on ways to alter rice, the main food of the world's population, so that it will be more nutritious and resistant. Insects are being engineered to attack crop predators. Researchers are growing agricultural products in the laboratory using genetically altered bacteria. A major commercial role for genetically engineered plants as chemical factories is also envisioned, such as organic plastics.

    Some drawbacks of this revolution are increased toxins and diseases, which are causing the resulting organisms to become resistant to antibiotics. Increased toxins in plants were designed to make insect-resistant plants. Nuclear physicist Dr. John Hagerlin testified in Washington, DC, at the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) public hearing that increased toxins trigger unanticipated allergic reactions. The resulting gene pollution threatens the environment, for it breaks down genetic barriers put in place by Nature.(8)

    Industrial mistakes in production or insufficient research in engineered food ingredients also can cause serious problems. The Tryptophan food supplement, an amino acid marketed as a natural tranquilizer and sleeping pill, was mass-produced from genetically altered bacteria. It killed 37 persons and permanently disabled over 1,500 others with an incurable nervous system condition known as eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS).(9) When these technologies were applied to livestock, farmers first were pleased that the engineered cattle produced more milk, grew faster, and yielded more meat. However, cases of mutation and rampant overgrowth have caused scientists to reevaluate the effectiveness of these procedures.

    Another important issue is inserting human genes in animals. What percent of human genes does an organism have to contain before it is considered human? If humans have a special ethical status, does the presence of human genes in an organism change its ethical status? What about a genetically engineered mouse that produces a human sperm that is then used to conceive a human child?(10) Or a pig that contains human genes in order to grow organs that can be transplanted to humans?(11)

    It is shocking that the FDA issued guidelines in September 1996 that allow animal-to-human transplants, even though a group of 44 top virologists, primate researchers, and AIDS specialists, opposed it. They attacked the FDA guidelines, saying that based on knowledge of past cross-species transmissions (e.g., AIDS, Herpes B, Ebola, and other viruses), using animals was not adequately justified for use in a handful of patients. Vast numbers of people could be injured or even killed if a new infectious agent were to be transmitted.(12) The FDA puts the responsibility for health and safety on local hospitals and medical review boards.

    Recombinant DNA technology also has been applied directly to the human body. After mapping the entire genome, scientists discovered some disease-causing genes. They are now working to isolate those genes and develop molecular-level treatments. Although curing Alzheimers, nuscular dystrophy, and many other inherited diseases would make patients happy, unexpected results may occur. When applying gene therapy, a one-to-one correspondence between the gene and its function is assumed. Since genes interact in a horizontal manner, as scientists have shown, introducing a new gene could have unforeseen effects.(13)

    Genetic manipulation in human beings always encompasses the possibility of designer genes that manipulate a child's appearance, IQ, or behavior. According to a March of Dimes survey, 40 percent of Americans would use gene therapy to enhance their children's looks or intelligence. Even picking your child's gender has become a question of money. A Fairfax, Virginia-based genetics and in-vitro fertilization institute offers family balancing for approximately $3,000. Known as microsort, the male sperm is separated from the female one. In 2001, the institute treated around 60 couples a month and planned to double its production. Fortune Magazine calculated that the microsort market could be worth $200 million.(14)

    There is also talk that people could be exploited as producers of certain substances. For example, a biotech corporation applied to the European Patent Office for a patent on a so-called pharm woman. The idea was to genetically alter women so that their breast milk would contain specialized pharmaceuticals.(15)

    Related debates

    There are many other largely debated topics in this field, but the most controversial one of all is human cloning life. This is divided into therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning.

    In therapeutic cloning, scientists produce embryos in culture dishes to harvest their stem cells. These then are used in further research, the long-term goal of which is to produce replacement organisms. Stem cells are undifferentiated and primitive cells that can be found in embryos as well as in an adult body.(16) Researchers intend to isolate stem cells so they can serve as a starter stock for growing replacement nerve, muscle and other tissue that might one day be used to treat patients with various diseases.(17) Even though this procedure sounds very promising, we should not overlook the fact that embryos are mass-produced to harvest stem cells. Once these have been isolated, the embryo becomes useless and disposable. The ethics of this procedure are questionable, since stem cells also could be harvested from an adult human body.

    Reproductive cloning intends to implant such a cloned embryo into a woman's uterus. Although this procedure is not safe for either the mother or the child, Severino Antinori announced that he and his team will soon produce the first cloned child. The Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research revealed that cloned mice possess subtle genetic defects that could eventually wreak havoc on the animals system. This means that even though a cloned child might appear completely normal at birth, it has to expect serious health problems later in life.(18)

    There also are potential psychological risks for a cloned child. Dr. Thomas Murray worries about the child's self-identity problem once he/she finds out that he/she is a clone and how he/she was conceived.(19) George Johnson, a professor at Washington University, opposes cloning because genetic variation is the chief defense our species has against an uncertain future. If we strip ourselves of it even partially, it is to endanger our species.


    Recombinant DNA technology faces our society with problems unique not only in the history of science but also life on the Earth as well as legal approaches towards them. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms. It presents probably the largest ethical problem science has ever had to face. Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restrictions to learn what we can about nature. Reconstructing nature was not part of the bargain. Going ahead in this direction may not be only unwise but also dangerous. Potentially it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer and novel epidemics.(20)

    Since creation is in a perfect balance, interventions might have unforeseen effects. A book must be written by an author, a picture must be painted by an artist, and a poem must be written by a poet. Each piece of art has an artist who has an encompassing knowledge of his/her creation. If we do not understand that nature is a perfectly composed book, our writings will be no more than scribbles between the lines.


    2 Lily E. Kay, The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 26.
    3 Herbert Gottweiss, Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the US (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1998), 42.
    4 Ibid., 46.
    10 Surrogate Fathers, New Scientist (31 Jan. 1998).
    11 Robert Pool, Saviors, Discover, (May 1998): 53-57. (special issue.)
    12 IP/BiodivNews, 1-24-97 or
    13 Horizontal gene transfer refers to the transfer of genes to unrelated species by infection through viruses, through pieces of genetic material, DNA by being taken up into cells from the environment, or by unusual mating taking place between unrelated species. (Mae-Wan Ho, Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare, 2d rev. [Continuum Pub Group: 2000),
    14 The Economist (14 Apr. 2001): 22.
    15 Andrew Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 191.
    16 Popular Science (Jan. 2002): 58.
    17 Scientific American (Jan. 2002): 45.
    18 Gunjan Sinha, Popular Science (Jan. 2002)
    19 Thomas Murray, Talk of the Nation broadcast, 24 Feb. 1997.
    20 George Wald, The Case Against Genetic Engineering, in The Recombinant DNA Debate, eds. David A. Jackson and Stephen P. Stich (Prentice Hall College Div: 1979), 127-28.


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