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Genetic engineering has applications in many fields; medicine, agriculture, the environment, and food production. It can be described rather generally as any genetic manipulation that allows an organism to perform new functions or produce new substances.
The unravelling of DNA and the mapping of a diverse range of organisms such as humans, dogs and viruses, is giving us unprecedented knowledge into how nature works. Knowing the fundamentals of how a cancer spreads, the tricks a virus uses to replicate inside our cells, or what prompts a brain to degenerate in Alzheimer's patients, equips science with the tools to counter these harsh realities of life.
But the technology is not without its critics, and just as genetic engineering has many plus points, there are also some cons that must be considered.
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Pros of Genetic Engineering
In looking at the pros and cons of genetic engineering, we'll consider the technology in the fields of agriculture, food production, and medicine.
Many crops such as rice, maize, and potatoes are being genetically engineered in several ways. Proponents argue that the benefits are many; 1) higher crop yields 2) more nutritious food 3) crops can be grown in harsh environments 4) they are more resistant to pests thus eliminating the use of potentially hazardous pesticides 5) undesirable characteristics can be removed 6) food can have a better flavour and a longer shelf life and 7) they can also be used as a cheap source of medicine.
To treat many life-threatening illnesses genetic engineering aims to replace faulty genes with perfect working copies. The potential is incredible. However, whilst there have been some small successes in gene therapy trials to cure vision impairment and also X-SCID (where people lack an effective immune system) - it's fair to say that so far the technology hasn't lived up to expectations. It's an extraordinarily difficult job to get a gene to exactly where you want it in the body, and for it to function in the way that you want it to. Plus our expectations were probably too high from the start.
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Cons of Genetic Engineering
In terms of gene therapy this can be a dangerous procedure. A virus is being used as a vector to get the genes inside, and some fear that even though the virulence factors have been silenced, danger is still at hand. There's also a risk that a gene could land in a spot other than where you want it and cause harm by being expressed in unusual ways. There have been several deaths in gene therapy trials, most famously that of Jesse Gelsinger in 1999.
Opposition to the use of genetic engineering in food and agriculture centres on several fears. Namely that any gene for herbicide resistance may spread into other crops and create some form of superweed; or that a genetic modification that is passed on say through pollination, might pose a hazard to the ecosystem. There's also a concern that unusual gene expression may lead to crops causing more allergic reactions in consumers.
There are many more pros and cons of genetic engineering than the few that are listed here, and all are argued passionately by advocates on both sides, many clutching reams of data to back up their arguments. That makes it very difficult for the lay person to understand exactly what is going on, especially when combatants (if that's not too strong a word) seem equally eminent and well qualified.
What is certain is that even though many are concerned with its speed of introduction, fearing that it is going too fast for society to understand any and all possible implications, genetic engineering is here to stay.
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Genetic Engineering and Society
Of course there are many people who view this kind of genetic manipulation as against nature. Proponents of genetic engineering counter this by arguing that man has been manipulating genomes for centuries with the selective breeding of crops and cattle. That some see it as against nature is a redundant argument, unless they want to go back and live in a cave. Every single technological advance from the pills that keep some people alive to the clothes we wear and the vehicles we travel in is 'against nature.'
The advance of technology be it in biotechnology or in computer science is never ending. Innovation and finding solutions to problems is what we humans are good at. That is not to say that an innovation doesn't of itself present new problems. Sometimes it does. However, to stop the progress of technology is against nature, human nature. We are born with inquiring minds, we like fixing things; it enhances us as a species.
This is not to give carte blanche to scientists and engineers though; innovation should never be conducted in a moral vacuum. Society must have every opportunity to weigh up the pros and cons. That involves a willingness on the part of scientists to explain their work at every opportunity, and in a language that people understand. It also requires us the public to listen and to learn for ourselves. Frankly over the years the amount of ill-informed debate about genetics and cloning has been ridiculous. Some of the blame goes to the media who love to make up stories about the 'evil geniuses' wanting to create Frankenstein's monster.
Genetic engineering is a valuable technology, but it is not without its faults and technical difficulties. There is also no such thing as absolute safety or zero risk. Every new technology has some risk attached to it. As long as the benefits far outweigh any negative effects, and that everything possible is done to ensure that those risks are minimal, new technologies, including genetic engineering should be pursued with vigour. The biggest risk may be in not pursuing them?