Science has allowed for advances in production, transportation and even entertainment, but never in history will science be able to effect our lives, as genetic engineering will undoubtedly do. By understanding genetic engineering and its history, discovering its possibilities and answering the moral and safety questions it brings forth, perhaps scientists will be able to create a world where gene defects, bacterial diseases and even aging, will be a thing of the past. Genetic engineering was first achieved when an Austrian Monk named Gregor Mendel developed the first 'laws of hereditary. (See J allen, 1997) Using these 'laws', scientists studied the characteristics of organisms for the next 100 years following Mendel's discovery. These early studies showed scientists that each organism has at least two sets of character determinants, or genes. For example, his / her parents determine a child's eye color.
Genes are transmitted through chromosomes, which reside in the nucleus of every living organism cells. Each chromosome is made up of fine strands of deoxyribonucleic acids, or DNA. DNA determines the shape, form and function of the organism offspring. Three scientists, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and James Dewey Watson made the discovery of DNA in 1951.
They were all later accredited with the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1962. (see Rissler, 1996: 1) "The new science of genetic engineering aims to take a dramatic short cut in the slow process of evolution." (Hindmarsh, 1995: 1) Scientists aim is to remove one gene from organisms DNA, and place it into the DNA of another organism. This would create a new DNA strand that would have taken nature millions of years of natural selection to develop. The possibilities for genetic engineering are endless. Once scientists master the ability to control DNA, anything can be accomplished, for example: "disease resistant crops can be produced formulating milk from cows already containing pharmaceutical compounds, generating vaccines, and altering livestock traits." (Bruce 1992: 42) Researchers have found important uses for genetic engineering in fields such as medicine, industry, and agriculture. Many new uses are also predicted for the future.
Many people suffer from genetic diseases ranging from thousands of different types of cancers, to blood, liver and lung disorders. Perhaps in time to come, all of these diseases will be able to be treated by genetic engineering, specifically gene therapy. "Gene therapy is used to supply a functional gene to cells lacking that particular function, this in turn, corrects the genetic disorder, or disease." (University of Pennsylvania, 1997: 1-3-6) There are two main categories of gene therapy: germ line therapy, or altering of sperm and egg cells, and somatic cell therapy, which is like an organ transplant. "Germ line therapy results in a permanent change for the entire organism, and its future offspring." (AGST, 1998: 1-2-3) Unfortunately germ line therapy is not readily in use on humans for ethical and safety reasons.
However, this genetic method could, in the future, solve many genetic birth defects such as downs syndrome. Somatic cell therapy deals with the direct treatment of living tissues. Agriculture has benefited greatly from genetic engineering, cotton plants have been genetically engineered to resist insect pests, special genes have been engineered into tomato plants to produce tomatoes that have increased flavor, and last longer. (See AGST, 1998: 2) Once scientists have found answers to the moral and safety questions genetic engineering brings forth, then perhaps in the not so distant future, genetic engineering will become a main source in eliminating genetic, bacterial and viral diseases, along with controlling aging, and providing replacements for humans, such as arms, legs and organs. Throughout the centuries disease has plagued the world. Whether viral or bacterial, such diseases are treated with vaccines and antibiotics.
These treatments, however, contain many unsolved problems. "The difficulty with applying antibiotics to destroy bacteria is that natural selection allows the mutation of bacteria cells, sometimes resulting in mutation bacterium which is resistant to a particular antibiotic. Genetic engineering is conquering this medical dilemma by utilizing diseases that target bacterial organisms." (Clements, 1996: 1) Current medical capabilities allow for the transplants of human organs, and even mechanical portions of some, such as the battery operated pacemaker. Current science can even re-apply fingers after they have been cut off in accidents, or attach synthetic arms and legs to allow patients to function normally. How much more convenient would it be if the human body could simply re-grow what it needed, such as a new kidney or an arm Genetic engineering can make this a reality. "Currently in the world, a single plant cell can differentiate into all the components of an original, complex organism." (Wright 1996: 1) Lizards can shed their tails when being attacked and then later re-grow them.
There is evidence of regeneration in nature occurring all around us and the researchers of genetic engineering are trying to master the techniques. Ever since biblical times the life span of a human being has been put at roughly 70 years. Genetic engineering raises the question "Is this number truly finite"A common conception is that the human body contains an internal biological clock which continues to tick for about 70 years, then stops. An alternate "watch" analogy could be that the human body contains a certain type of alarm clock, and after so many years, the alarm sounds and deterioration begins. W. Donner Denckla, of the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, proposes the alarm clock theory is true." (Crecelious, 1995: 1-4) W.
Donner Denckla provides evidence for this statement by examining the similarities between normal aging and the symptoms of a hormonal deficiency disease associated with the thyroid gland. Denckla proposes that as we get older the pituitary gland begins to produce a hormone, which blocks the action of the thyroid hormone, which then causes the body to age, and then die. If Denckla's theory is correct, then stopping the effects of aging would be a process of using genetic engineering to alter the pituitary's DNA so it would never be able to release the aging hormone. Perhaps in the years to come, genetic engineering may defy the aging process. The moral and safety questions surrounding genetic engineering currently cause this new science to be cast in a false light. Anti-technologists, political and religious extremists spread false interpretation of facts coupled with statements that genetic engineering is not natural and defies the natural order of things.
Some people oppose genetic engineering because they fear that harmful, uncontrollable bacteria might be produced accidentally. Others worry about environmental damage by the deliberate introduction of organisms whose heredity has been altered; also people question the morality of manipulating the genetic material of living creatures. Our fear of the unknown has slowed the progress of many scientific discoveries in the past. The thought of humans flying, or stepping on the moon was not easy for the average person to accept, but in time, these were accepted, and are now an everyday occurrence in our lives. With time, knowledge and exploration, genetic engineering too will come into full use in our society. This science is the newest and most exciting step into human evolution, and through knowledge and experimentation, genetic engineering's possibilities are endless..