Recombinant DNA. Most of us have heard about it, but most don’t truly understand it. Like chess, it is very easy to learn the basics, but takes, as they say, a “lifetime to master.” In laymen’s terms, recombinant DNA is the process of taking DNA from one organism and combining it with the DNA from another organism. For example, there are some fish in the arctic circle that have a special snippet of DNA that prevents them from becoming frozen, thus preserving their life. This DNA has been extracted, and inserted into the chromosomes of strawberries. This helps prevent frozen strawberry plants, so they can be planted earlier and also kept in warehouses with lower heating costs.
While there are plenty of examples of recombinant DNA working for us, it is a relatively new field of science in which much caution must be exercised. Our knowledge of DNA is much like a child’s knowledge of bees. All he knows is what is immediately obvious, and will have no clue of the stinger of the bee’s posterior until he seizes it and is stung. We will not know the dangers of recombinant DNA until it “stings” us. And, unlike the child with the bee, we may not have a second chance to avoid danger. If the newly created life form finds its way to the wilds, it will be almost impossible to destroy it, as it will most likely reproduce.
In nature, there is a high chance that nature will not have preexisting measures to keep it in check, as it will not have evolved alongside other creatures, and may run rampant. Until we have a better understanding of DNA, we can not risk ruining the ecosystem. Scientists may think they know what they are doing by inserting what the have discovered to be the gene they want, but it has been proven that genes do not have singular effects, and instead their effects ripple throughout the entire genome have unforeseen consequences, many of which have the possibility to be negative.
There are various events that may occur as a result of mishaps in the laboratories. In the case that xenographs (new animals created mixing the genes of two separate species) find their way into nature, they may multiply at a rate fast enough to significantly reduce the amount of food in the ecosystem. If bacteria escape, which is the most likely scenario because they are used to multiply genes that will be extracted a second time, an even larger problem may arise. If they are pathogenic, nature may not have evolved a way through natural selection to ward them off, and an epidemic (or possibly a pandemic) may occur. Even if the bacteria do not directly harm larger life forms, they may kill off the bacteria that naturally help us by doing such things as digest food or kill off pathogens. If we lose the aid of these bacteria, we may not be able to digest food, and diseases we have never seen before may take hold and easily kill us in a day, creating a epidemic that could easily be worse than the black plague of the middle ages.
Many readers may be wondering how it is that these newly created bacterium could be so much more dangerous that others. The bacteria that are created by recombinant DNA are created with some special characteristics. As they are usually created simply to reproduce and create multiple copies of genes in an efficient manner, these bacterium mature quickly, reproduce quickly, and require low amounts of nutrients to develop and live. These are prime characteristics for out-of-control growth of colonies that could easily spread more quickly than we have ever witnessed.
If xenographs replace a natural creature in the food-chain, it may be inedible or less nutritious than what it replaced, thus disrupting the food-chain. The animals that cannot get their food immediately will die off shortly, and the animals that eat those animals will die off, creating a chain-reaction that may destroy the life near the epicenter of contamination.
One question has to do with the use of human genes. Many fruits, vegetables, and animals are being grown with some human genes, such as peppers. If you were to eat these peppers, would it be considered that you are simply eating a vegetable? Is this breaking the commitment that most vegetarians have made? Can one go so far as to conclude that we are being cannibalistic by eating the peppers? If not, how many human genes are required before the xenograph can be considered a human and given the rights that are natural to all humans? This is one question that will soon have to be answered before genetics can proceed, and before we are to determine if taking nature and altering it is acceptable.
Now, with all this risk to life as we know it, why are scientists spending all the time, money, and resources that they are to research recombinant DNA? There are four main drives. First of all, the large corporations that fund research expect a return many times that of what they have invested. Secondly, recombinant DNA has the possibility of saving millions of lives by ridding the world of genetic disorders such as tuberculosis and Down syndrome. Thirdly, since the beginning of time, man has always been extremely curious about his surroundings, and discovering the inner workings of life is nothing short of extraordinary. Lastly, the possibilities that recombinant DNA may open up one day are too exciting to be ignored.
It’s very possible that in the future, prospective parents may be able to simply fill out a form deciding how their child will look, and even maybe how smart, kind, and charismatic a person may be. A person’s personality is a combination of both genetics and environment, and it is yet unknown how much of a role genetics has in it. Unfortunately, this may cause adverse effects to the world, in addition to the obvious positive aspects.
Imagine in a world where everyone has been created beautiful and wise, how others will look on the rare “freaks” whose parents chose them to remain unaltered and pure. Most likely, they will be discriminated against. Is science, a usually innocent venture existing only to help and quench curiosity, going to be the catalyst for extreme discrimination? One can only hope not.
One other concern that has been raised in scientific circles is that of pre-birth contracts. If parents are too poor to genetically engineer their children, how many companies will be willing to pay for their “design,” in exchange for a promise of employment with the design being specifically altered to make the job the child will eventually have easier. If one is under contract to be a roofer, they may be given exceptionally strong back muscles and a strong resistance to arthritis. A dancer will be built to be limber and flexible. The extreme downside to this possibility, however, is the wish of the child. If one is legally forced into a career, the chances of them enjoying it are extremely low. Civilization has finally reached a point where force employment, such as contracted apprenticeship, is nearly extinct. Are we to go back to this inhumane behavior simply so one will be more fair of skin?
Many will agree that the this whole prospect is exciting and possibly wonderful, but this will only be true if those with the power, mainly researchers and those who fund them, are careful and learn from the past. Often, the public has been told about the wonders of new inventions or discoveries, simply to discover the downside later on. Nuclear power was once thought to be the end of the world’s energy problems, but then the problems of disposal, and the safety concerns (remember Chernobyl?) became overwhelming, so it is still fairly rare to find. Various sugar substitutes over the past century were said to help ward off weight gains, but later on showed that they caused any number of health side-effects. Chemical sprays, such as DDT, were at first hailed as combatants against the problem of world hunger, but then their harmful side-effects were also discovered, in some cases too late to prevent widespread damage.
Recombinant DNA has the potential to change the world in a so much better way, that modern day living will be viewed in the same light that we currently view the dark ages. Unfortunately, it also has the potential to destroy life, through so many ways that most have not even been thought of. Research of recombinant DNA will most likely never stop, and even if one wanted to halt its progress, they would have a nearly impossible task set before them. All that we can do to help insure the safety of our posterity is to control how genetic engineering progresses today. As fellow humans, we must be sure to press for laws that help insure our safety when it comes to recombinant DNA, while still not limiting the advance of it as a branch of science. Large numbers can do nearly anything, and as long as we keep other so-called “miracles” in the back of our mind, it is very possible to steer the research in a direction that will be beneficial for all.