Genetic Engineering In America
The United States of America is the largest producer of genetically modified (GM) agricultural products, harvesting about two-thirds (63%) of the world’s GM crops. Yet so many Americans are uninformed of genetic engineering’s presence in the food system, forensic science, developing transgenic animals, production of medicine, and genomics. More than 80% of the soy, 75% of the cotton, and 40% of corn produced in the United States are GM products. Because these crops are the source of some of the most common ingredients used by American food processors, most estimates conclude that between 60% and 70% of processed foods on American shelves contain ingredients derived GM products. Because most Americans have given little thought to the issue, their opinions on GM products and procedures are often hazy and highly malleable by the uninformed public. Even though genetic engineering is a relatively new technology, already it has changed America. Many methods of genetic engineering, such as cloning and forensic science, promise to bring America to a brighter future.
So what is genetic engineering? “Genetic engineering describes a set of methods designed to change the genetic information of a cell or an organism directly. It provides the means by which genetic information (DNA) can be transferred across species barriers that cannot cross by conventional breeding” (Barker 146). Everyone knows that the offspring of an organism has similar traits of their parents. This is because genes are passed on in the breeding process. The genetic information is stored as a code in a gene passed on from generation to generation. This process leads to the production of proteins. These proteins are responsible for creating traits that characterize an individual organism. As simple as that sounds there are many more terms that are a part of the common language concerning genetics. One term that is often used in genetic engineering is “transgenic.” Transgenic organisms, being any living thing, are organisms that have been manipulated so that they carry new genes from other organisms. Transgenic technology is one of the main principals of genetic engineering. It allows the exchange of genetic material that cannot be naturally inbred. For example, a plant might be genetically engineered to be immune to a certain pesticide. That is, the plant is mutated so that it carries a gene that gives the plant resistance to the pesticide.
Like most discoveries, genetic engineering was discovered by accident. “In 1970, Hamilton Smith, accidentally discovered that when he inserted foreign DNA into a small bacterium, the cell chopped the “invader” DNA into small pieces. Smith had discovered the first site-specific restriction enzyme” (Johnson 56). While this perception was so small, it later evolved into what we know today as genetic engineering. The earliest example of the commercial use of genetic engineering was in 1978. That year a gene was inserted into a bacterium to produce insulin. Just four years later the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company marketed the first genetically engineered drug; a type of insulin grown in genetically modified bacteria. Within a few years, genetic engineering seemed as though it was accepted by the general public. In 1980, a U.S. Supreme Court decision permitted patents for genetically modified organisms: the first one was awarded to the General Electric Company for bacteria to help clear oil spills (Wexler 13). This eventually developed into what we know today as genetic engineering. Since then, many new varieties of genetic engineering have been developed including: GM crops, GM animals (cloning), biotechnology, gene therapy, genomics, and forensic science.
“Introducing genes into a crop plant aims to make it as useful and productive as possible by acting to protect the crop, improve the harvest, or enable the plant to perform a new function or acquire a new trait” (Wexler 15). Ever since humans have been farming they have been genetically engineering their crops. Any farmer knows that any stalk of corn that produces a plentiful amount corn will have offspring that do the same. Genetic engineering does not always require a laboratory; instead the farmers would breed crops that had the highest yield with other crops that had the highest yield. Nowadays, crops can be altered genetically in the lab. Gene altered crops can be made more resistant to pests and diseases or acquire other qualities that enhance their commercial value. For example the corn borer Pyrausta nubilalis, which bores into the stems of corn plants, eventually killing them, can be controlled using genetically altered bacterium, Clavibacter xyli, that lives on the stems of the corn plant (Barber). “Genetic modification of crops has proven to be the most rapidly adopted technology in the world” (Wexler 117). ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Avid Tropics, says that transgenic crops benefit developing countries. One of the reasons that many developing countries have problems protecting their crops from disease is that the protection is not affordable. Transgenic crops will benefit these countries by enabling greater use of crop, increasing variety of crops grown, making protection of crops from disease and pests affordable, and improving harvest yields (Wexler 117). Not only can genetic engineering be used to produce GM crops, but it can also used to produce transgenic animals.
Cloning is just one chapter in the book of genetically engineered animals. Cloning is when an exact copy of an entire organism is made. A clone is an organism that’s created via asexual reproduction, meaning offspring are produced without the parent having sex first (Robinson 300). Cloning was performed in the early 1950s, when genetic engineering was unfamiliar. In the 1950s scientists had already cloned frogs, and by the 1970s successful cloning of cows, mice, and sheep were accomplished. Even though successful cloning was accomplished, the embryos (containing the clone) did not produce healthy, efficient offspring. The offspring were abnormal and had shortened life spans and could not reproduce (Wexler 14). Finally in February of 1997, a Scottish scientist, Iam Wilmut, reported the successful cloning of an adult sheep. This development opened the possibility of a means to sustain prize breeds as stock animals, but also raised important issues concerning the responsible use of the new technology (Ilgen). Today, genetically engineered animals, like mice, are used to study cancer and other diseases. Another example of how transgenic animals are used is that sheep and cows are sometimes bred to produce a certain drug or vitamin in their milk. This is done by transferring human genes into transgenic animals. The human gene is attached to a section of animal’s DNA to ensure that the gene will be activated only in the mammary gland. The combined human-animal donor fragment is inserted into the fertilized egg of the host species. After the transgenic animal had been born and matures, it produces the gene product in their milk (Barber). This animal, however, is not a clone. Human genes have simply been inserted into a fertilized egg instead of creating a genetically identical animal. Cloning is also used in the genetic engineering of medicine, with the goal to improve human health.
Therapeutic cloning is a very important process when it comes to the genetic of medicine. Therapeutic cloning uses human stem cells as a part of the first step in reproductive cloning. The objective of therapeutic cloning is not to create human clones, but rather to obtain stem cells to study human development and treat disease. Stem cells are “master cells” capable of developing into a multiple of other cell types. Scientists say that stem cells hold the key to the development of more effective treatment for common diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even in treating cancer (Wexler 107). Biotechnology is another major process that uses genetics to produce medicine. “Biotechnology is the application of technology to biological processes for industrial, agricultural, and medical purposes” (Hine). Biotechnology has already created many drugs. For example, biotechnology is used when bacteria such as Penicillium and Streptomycin are used to produce antibiotics. “According to the article ‘Cures on the Cob’ a human gene that codes for an antibody to genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease that affects over 60 million Americans, is being grown in the corn plants. The biotechnology firm plans to use the corn to develop a topical gel for herpes. Epicyte is also developing plant-grown spermicide and antibodies to fight respiratory diseases, counter ebola, and treat Alzheimer’s disease” (Wexler 128). Genetic engineering now enables the large-scale production of hormones, blood serum proteins, and other medically important products to cure many diseases, including some genetic diseases. Most genetic diseases are the result of a chemical deficiency in the body. An example is primary diabetes resulting from insulin deficiency. These substances are synthesized by inserting human genes for the chemicals into bacteria using recombinant DNA technology (Barber). Humans can also be genetically engineered, believe it or not.
In 1990, the first gene therapy was administered. Gene therapy alters genetic material to compensate for a genetic mistake that causes disease. In this process, health care professionals can interpret the individual’s genes to find if they are susceptible to a certain disease that runs in their family (Wexler 133). Most gene therapy involves the insertion of functioning genes into the genome. Other techniques include swapping an abnormal gene for a normal one, this process is known as homologous recombination. This process restores an abnormal gene to normal function via selective reverse mutation, changing the regulation of the gene (Wexler). Recent research has revealed that gene therapy technology may be more helpful in treating several non-genetic diseases for which there are no available effective treatments. Gene therapy clinical trials are currently underway for pancreatic cancer, sarcoma, and end stage (advanced) coronary artery disease. Gene therapy and genetically engineered medicine are already improving the health millions as well as providing information for genomics.
Genomics is a relatively new branch of genetics that investigates the entire genome of an organism. Genomics compares the genomes of different species to reveal how genes have evolved from millions of years ago. For example, data obtained by genomics allows breeders to locate a specific gene. The genes can be moved to produce consistent offspring that have a new trait (St. John). A major part of genomics is the Human Genome Project. The goal of this project is to identify every gene that makes up the human genome, a manifest of all human genes and their functions. These goals include improved human health, which can range from treating genetic disorders to finding which gene attributes to longevity. Since genomics is a moderately new branch of genetics, not all of the genes in the human genome have been identified. This means that there is still so much for us to discover and learn about ourselves. Who knows how much the new discoveries will impact us? One thing is for sure, the information gained from Human Genome Project has already been a major stepping stone in forensic science.
The genetics branch in forensic science, known as forensic genetics, uses molecular genetics techniques to identify an individual’s genetic makeup. Forensic genetics relies on measurement of many different genetic markers, each of which normally varies from individual to individual, and may be used to determine whether two people are genetically related (Wexler 131). One test used in forensic genetics is DNA fingerprinting. DNA fingerprinting analyzes the genetics in DNA to provide evidence in criminal cases or even to establish paternity. Since everyone is genetically unique, their RFLP patterns (patterns on fingertips) form a distinct “genetic fingerprint” that can have useful forensic applications. For example, it is possible to place a suspect at the scene of a crime with a very high degree of confidence using DNA (Barber). If you’ve ever seen “CSI” you know the importance of blood stains, semen stains, hair roots, etc. Just small samples of these can put a criminal behind bars. DNA can also be used for a paternity test or to prosecute a criminal. In a paternity test, the alleles in the person’s DNA are analyzed to see if they match those of the baby. The same process can be done if DNA found at a crime scene is run through CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). All that is needed is a match found through CODIS to find a criminal. With all of the uses of genetic engineering there are bound to be suspicions concerning its morality.
The biggest concerns of genetic engineering revolve mainly around 4 sources. These ethical issues include: cloning, genetic profiling, the Human Genome Project, and eugenics. Some scientists fear, “With too much cloning there is less genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is important in establishing and maintaining the health and well-being of populations of organisms. The lack of genetic diversity in populations of organisms may ultimately expose threats for humans” (Robinson 311). For example, genetically identical crops could obtain the same disease and consequently seriously endanger food supplies. Another major ethical issue of genetic engineering is genetic profiling. The concern, involving the Human Genome Project, is that there is the potential to discover genes that are predictive in a variety of personal attributes. These personal attributes, including alcoholism, or susceptibility to heart disease and cancer, could end up on background checks used in employment. Most fear that this information could be misused by employers, governments, or even insurance companies.
One of the biggest issues of genetic engineering is eugenics. Eugenics is the idea that humans should practice selective reproduction in an effort to “improve” their species. A more ethically troubling possibility of the Human Genome Project is that information could be used to promote positive eugenics. People of the future could be genetically engineered to be more intelligent, more athletic, or to live much longer. This is still considered a part of genetic engineering because humans are going through an effort to change their species (Robinson 314). “Sadly, violent forms of eugenics, such as genocide, rape, and forced sterilization, are still advocated and practiced all over the world” (Robinson 315). Unfortunately, not all forms of eugenics are as easy to recognize as these extreme examples. For instance, extreme example of eugenics occurred in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Hitler wanted to create an elite race. He believed that anyone who did not fit the genetic profile he was looking for, such as the Jews, were to be immediately exterminated. That is our history, but right now it matters how Americans feel about genetic engineering. “The May 2002 Harris Poll finds that while many Americans are not very knowledgeable about genetic testing; 52% said they were somewhat familiar with the term and 29% were not very familiar or not familiar at all.” Most importantly, once the concept was explained to them, the majority (81%) considered genetic testing a valuable practice (Wexler 135). This poll is very important in identifying that genetic engineering is receiving positive feedback from Americans.
Genetic engineering is a relatively new technology, which already has changed America. Many methods of genetic engineering, such as cloning and forensic science, promise to bring America to a brighter future. Cloning has the potential to do a lot of good in the future. Cloning for medical and therapeutic purposes gives enormous hope that one day paralyzed persons will walk again and that people suffering from incurable conditions such as diabetes will be cured (Robinson 310). Once the Human Genome Project is finished, the information will revolutionize prevention and treatment of disease. Doctors will be able to accurately predict patients’ risks of acquiring specific diseases and advise them of actions they can take to reduce their risks, prevent disease, and protect their health. Genetic research and genetic engineering technology promises to address some of the biggest dilemmas in the 21st century such as cleaning the environment, feeding the hungry, and preventing serious diseases. However, like all new technology, genetic engineering poses some risks as well as potential benefits. “In general, Americans support advances in genetic research and technology. They are optimistic that the outcomes will ultimately be positive by reducing sickness and suffering, as opposed to generating legal and ethical controversies” (Wexler 135).