Over the past couple of decades much debate has been going on about the use ofadvanced technology in the field of biology.
Ever since the first gene wascloned in 1973, genetic engineers have been pursuing at break-neck speed the"unlimited possibilities" promised by biotechnology (Davidson 1993).Their excitement, which has generated billions of investment dollars for theindustry, is understandable. Bioengineering allows scientists to identifyspecific gene sequences responsible for particular characteristics and then totransfer the genes -- and the specific trait -- into entirely different species.One of the more current and controversial issue in the field of biotechnology isthe use of bioengineering in food production. Scientists are experimenting withmany different plants, but the genetic engineering of the tomato, dubbed "FlavrSavr" has been the most highly publicized project by far. The new tomato issupposed to boast more "flavor" and be tastier due to its longerstaying time on the vine, thereby giving it more time to accumulate sweetness;yet, it will not rot or spoil because of its new genetic makeup.
(Davidson1993). With this advanced technology scientists argue that it could offer thegreatest hope in the aid to stop hunger in Third World countries. This newtechnology could be used to make bulk levels of food production more efficientand less costly. However, despite all of its advantages in creating bettercrops, many people are very skeptical about its safetiness and possiblelong-term health effects. Moreover, the social issue lies deep in the realm ofethical and moral concerns.
Do people really want to eat meat that is leaner andtastier but contains genes from humans? Or, would individuals (like vegetarians)be able to eat certain vegetables that may contain genes from animals?Personally, I would not support the use of genetic engineering in foodproduction based on moral and ethical reasons: I do not think that scientistsshould be able to use their knowledge and social prestige in society to be ableto play the role of "God" in creating new or better living things evenif their justification is for the purpose of serving mankind. Although we stillhave much to learn about genes, recently developed techniques have already givenrise to a new technology of molecular genetics. Genetic engineering, also knownas "gene splicing/manipulation" and "recombinant DNAtechnology" is a set of techniques for reconstructing, or deliberatelymanipulating, the genetic material of an organism. Operating at the molecularlevel, this process involves the addition, deletion, or reorganization of piecesof an organism's DNA (known as genes) in order to alter that organism's proteinproduction (Arms et al. 1994). The use and applications of genetic engineeringrange from medical and pharmaceutical to industrial crops and food products.
"Its applications, today or in the future, include…creating improvedstrains of crops and farm animals (Arms et al. 1994)." All of theseapplications rely on the ability to transplant genes into a cell's makeup, orgenome. The new gene may come from another organism, of the same species, or itmay contain DNA produced in the laboratory. One example, the new "FlavrSavr" tomato, developed by Calgene, a biotechnology company based in Davis,California, was subjected to years of scrutiny before the FDA (Food and DrugAdministration) agreed that it was safe to eat.
They found, copied, and rebuilta gene that lets these tomatoes stay on the vine without softening and spoiling.That means that the fruit can develop more of the sugars and acids that make ahome-grown tomato taste so sweet and rich. Conventional tomatoes sold in thestores are often hard and flavorless because they are picked while green andfirm enough to transport, then 'ripened' by spraying with ethylene (Wood 1995).This turns the tomato red but does nothing to develop a riper flavor.
Ethylene,a colorless, odorless gas that once kicks in, so do all the problems ofperishability (Wood 1995). Since tomatoes have a "softening" gene, itproduces RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) to help manufacture a protein that causesrotting. To stop the tomatoes going soft too soon, the researchers devised a wayto block production of the enzyme polygalacturonase, which breaks down cellwalls and eventually causes the fruit to rot (Miller 1994). The Calgenescientists inserted a mirror image of the softening gene that produces a reversecopy of the RNA. This reverse RNA blocks the action of the regular RNA and helpsto preserve the fruit.
All in all, Calgene seems to have produced a good buthardly outstanding tomato using "antisense" technology, given all thepropaganda and advertisements. A couple of the reasons for why the tomato failedwere because: (a) the manipulation of the ripening gene had unintendedconsequences (soft skin, weird taste, compositional changes); and (b) the highprice -- they tried selling it at first for $2.99 a pound (as expensive asorganic tomatoes), then later dropped the price to $2.49, then $1.99, then .99.
Furthermore, the general public does not seem persuaded or have caught up withthis "trend" yet. For one, people are greatly concerned about thesafety of the product since the FDA does not insist that genetically engineeredfoods carry a special label, even though the FDA assured consumers that they canbe "confident" in knowing that "foods produced by geneticengineering are as safe as food in our grocery stores today," stated FDACommissioner David A. Kessler, MD (Miller 1994). However, critics have cited acase in which at least 31 people died and 1500 contracted a fatal blood diseaseafter ingesting a genetically engineered batch of L-trytophan, a dietarysupplement (Davidson 1993). Without proper labeling it will be impossible forconsumers to exercise their right to choose what kind of foods they eat.
Anotherissue among consumers and environmental activist groups is that of moral andethical concerns. Many people feel that scientists might have gone too far interms of experimentation. We have now come to the end of the familiar pathway ofleaving everything to the creation of "Mother Nature." With the riseof advanced technology in genetics, scientists now possess the ability tomanipulate genes, and redirect the course of evolution. They can reassemble oldgenes and devise new ones.
They can plan, and with computer simulation,anticipate the future forms and paths of life. Hence, the old ways of evolutionwill be dwarfed by the role of purposeful human intelligence. However, just asnature stumbled upon life billions of years ago and began the process ofevolution, so too would the new creators of life find that living organisms allhave a destiny of their own. To evaluate the validity of the"benefits" of this technology, we need to answer three simplequestions: Is it safe, is it wise, is it moral? (Sinsheimer 1987). To answer thefirst question about whether it is safe, if the technological developments arekept open to public knowledge and scrutiny, I think in the short term it couldbe.
This way the general public can monitor the hazards of any new productintroduced into the biosphere, and can probably cope with any immediate problemsor consequences. In answering the second question of whether it is wise, I wouldsay that it is not. Through decades of research, scientists have learned of thedifferent pathogens that prey on humans, animals, and major crops. But I believethat their knowledge is still very limited in trying to understand what led tothese organisms' existence and modes of adaptation. Thus scientists cannotreally predict whether all their new "discoveries" and creations mightsomehow lead to a new and unexpected group of harmful species since potentialorganisms that could be converted by one or more mutations be transformed fromharmless bugs to serious risks. Finally, to answer the question of theadvantages of genetic engineering in terms of morality and ethics, I can onlysay that the more we create, the more problems we will have in the long run intrying to solve them.
Life has evolved on this planet into a delicately balancedand fragile network of self-sustaining interactions and equilibrium (Sinsheimer1987). If we try to change or replace the creatures and vegetation of this earthwith human-designed forms to conform to human will, I believe we will forget ourorigins and inadvertently collapse the ecological system in which we were found.Moreover, do we really want to assume the full responsibility for the structureand make-up of our world? I think that we seriously need to intervene betweenthe scientists and engineers to consider a solution that will help slow down allof these experiments so that we could step back and look at what we are doing.If not, I think that these practicing scientists and researchers should be morebroadly educated in our humanistic values and traditions.
They need tounderstand the implications of what they are doing in order to be able tobalance the concerns of the natural environment and that of society's humanisticneeds; to bear in mind that technology exists only to serve and not create.Human beings, are of course, sprung from the same DNA and built of the samemolecules as all other livings things. But if we begin to regard ourselves asjust another group of subjects to test our experiments on by altering ortampering with the foods we eat, just like another crop to be engineered oranother breed to be perfected, we will surely lose our awe of humanity andundermine all sense of human dignity.BibliographyArms, Karen et al. (1994). Science in Process: Genetic Engineering.
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