Genetic Engineering

Genetic Engineering is a modern science where the genes of an organism are changed to alter the features of that organism. This normally happens by the extraction of genes from one organism, and these genes are then introduced into another organism to aid it in survival. Genes are removed from the DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid) of an organism, and each gene codes for a particular trait in that organism (e. g. eye colour). Now that scientists have discovered what traits many of these genes code for, both in plants and in animals, they can modify these genes to benefit other organisms.

For example, if a patient has a gene disorder, such as sickle cell anaemia, scientist can now obtain the correct gene and insert it into the patient to help them. There have been many questions about whether genetic engineering is ethical or safe but another questions is this; are there too many benefits to just ignore genetic engineering? (10, 7) (1, 2) Agriculture is probably one of the most beneficial forms of genetic engineering, and is also the most commonly used.

It is now possible for scientists to modify plants so that they are able to grow in unfavourable environments; places where there are extreme climates. At the moment, researchers are experimenting on the ability to enable plants to survive frosts, whereas other plants are being genetically modified to help them fight against diseases. There are two good examples of this process in action. Firstly the tomato; if a tomato is given a fungal-fighting microbe, it can resist the grey mould called botrytis. The other is the fact that rice, in normal circumstances, does not contain very much vitamin A.

In the poorer parts of Asia, where rice is almost the only food of the rural population, a vitamin A deficiency is common, leading to early blindness. Scientists are creating a strain of rice, which is rich in vitamin A — the amount of rice in a typical third world diet could provide about fifteen percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, sufficient to prevent blindness. Now that a few plants with this trait have been created, they are being cross bred with other varieties of rice using conventional breeding techniques, as has been done for centuries.

Such cross breeding could further increase the vitamin A content. Genetic engineers also intend to produce a rice variety rich in iron, because iron-deficiency anaemia is a common problem in the same rural populations. But this is a more difficult problem than increasing rice’s vitamin A content. Rice contains an enzyme called phytase. Phytase prevents the body from absorbing iron, so it does little good to breed for increased iron content, and the rice plant cannot reproduce without adequate phytase in the grains.

Scientists hope to be able to find a gene coding for a protein that will break down phytase when the rice is cooked. (10, 7, 11) (1, 2, 3) As well as plants, animals are also being genetically treated to produce more meat, and less fat. Crops have also been treated to make then taste better and to stay ripe for longer. This will mean that they are easier to grow and also to store. This type of biotechnology will prove very beneficial in helping the food problems in third world countries. Most people don’t realize how much of the food they consume is already enhanced through genetic engineering.

A concern of genetic engineering in agriculture is connected with the ‘knock-on’ effects towards the environment. Critics believe genetic engineering will cause crop devastation, soil and water depletion, and mutations. (10, 11, 9) (1, 3, 4) The majority of the questions, concerning the moral and ethical aspects of genetic engineering, are along the lines of the ones below: * Should scientists be allowed to modify the genes of humans and animals? * Should scientists be allowed to alter the genes of a baby before it is born? * Should we be trying to play God with real organisms?

These questions must be answered but biotechnology cannot just be ignored. It has already become a driving force behind most the World’s economy, food and medicine. Biotechnology can’t be stopped now, but it can be dealt with in a way that will satisfy ethical concerns and retain safety. The benefits of biotechnology in agriculture alone are great enough to keep investing in the new science. Once the ethical side of genetic engineering in humans and animals can be worked out, then the benefits will be even greater. There are many arguments for and against genetic engineering.

Some say that we will not be able to feed the ever-growing population if we don’t use genetic engineering. People also say that we have the right to a disease free life and should be able to know what diseases we will encounter in our life. Others say that humans are playing god and we are destroying the earth slowly by using genetic engineering. (6, 1, 2, 10) (1, 5, 6, 7) The part of genetic engineering, which has received the most opposition, is genetic tests. Genetic tests can reveal people at risk for certain diseases.

For example, a genetic test on a person can tell them if they are likely to have heart disease. They can then follow a healthy, low fat diet as a preventative measure. Genetic tests can be given when a child is born, so genetic protection can be given to stop the diseases, as the child gets older. Opponents, though, say that genetic tests could cost people jobs because the tests could reveal that a person is likely to be sick later on in life. This is an area where biotechnology will have to be regulated properly. If genetic tests are made strictly confidential, then such problems can be eliminated.

Some scientists also fear that genetic testing before birth will cause parents to abort a child that will not meet their expectations. In the future, a genetic test before birth that reveals the child to have a disease will mean that the disease can be cured by inserting a healthy gene, before the child is born. There would then be no reason to abort the child. (3, 10) Overall the benefits far outweigh the risks of genetic engineering, and this means that people will either have to live their lives worrying about the risks, or stop to think of the infinite benefits.

Whatever the people choose, it is likely that there will be a drastic increase worldwide, so my advice to people is to accept the benefits and forget about the minor consequences. Although some of the consequences are reasonably serious, for example, the worry that some crops may become immune to herbicides and become ‘super-weeds’. In actual fact, through evolution, these modifications will take place anyway, even if the plants are left to themselves.

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