Genetic Engineering: Technological Advancements And The Potential For Disaster

Current technology has made what once seemed impossible, mapping the human genome, a reality within the next decade. What began over forty years ago with the discovery of the basic structure of DNA has evolved into the Human Genome Project. This is a fifteen-year, three billion dollar effort to sequence the entire human genetic code. The Project, under the direction of the U.S. National Institute of Health and the department of Energy is ahead of schedule in mapping what makes up an individual's genetic imprint. Much of the current efforts in genetic engineering have been focused on genes that cause disease and to date, about eight hundred and eighty of these "disease" genes have been found. They include genes for Huntington's disease, cystic fibrosis, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, familial colon cancer, breast cancer and many more. Once the human genome is mapped, the next logical step is gene therapy, in which a missing gene is added or a defective one is removed.
One of the main issues to consider when discussing genetic engineering in humans is the fact that altering the genes of human embryos often creates problems. Genetic correction of one defect can create other new defects. One of the latest developments in the field of genetics has been the creation of what is called "transgenes." Because the genes of all organisms are made of DNA, genes of different organisms can be recombined, edited, and inserted into an embryo. The outcomes are "spliced" genes given the name of transgenes. Once inserted into an embryo, the genes would be present in every cell as the embryo grows, and would exert their effects throughout the organisms' lifetime. The goal of geneticists is to develop the proper transgene that can replace a defective gene and prevent the effects of an inherited disease. This has not yet been done successfully. Every new technology is imperfect and the first attempts are likely to reveal hidden flaws. However, a transgenic mistake could lead to a child being born with a new defect, caused by some misstep in the procedure. That defect would then be passed on to future generations.
Scientific breakthroughs in genetic engineering could not only have harmful physical effects on future generations but also sociological effects. Elimination of "defective" traits decreases a human being's ability to adapt to a changing environment. If global environments were to change drastically in the future, resistance to disease would mean the survival of the human race. Similarly, society may want to eliminate human characteristics labeled as inferior. A particular skin color that is viewed as defect could be deleted. This could result in a human "super-race" that has an inability to adapt to an ever-changing environment. It is a basic law of nature that variation is essential for the survival of a species. The fact that our environment will continue to change could cause entire populations of genetically engineered individuals to die out. Many inherited traits that currently seem like "defects" may be attributes in an altered environment.
Scientists may not only be "playing god" and risking individuals' health and well being, they also may be tampering the process of evolution and upsetting balances that have developed since the beginning of time. When dealing with an issue of such monumental significance as the ability to genetically redesign human beings, setting limits and drawing the line is essential. Humans must not disturb the balance of nature that is imperative for long-term survival of the human species. Perhaps it is not accidental that a fifteen to twenty year gap may soon exist between the ability to identify a genetic defect and the ability to correct it. Society needs time to realize that like all power, the advanced and evolving technical power which scientists' posses, must be used with utmost respect and caution.

Category: Social Issues