Everybody has heard the phrase “when pigs fly” at some point in their lives, usually as a response when asking for permission to do something. Well, that retort is no longer useful because with the help of genetic engineering, in theory, we could modify pigs to be able to fly. To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened yet, but it very well could if someone put their mind to it. Humans have been genetically modifying organisms indirectly, with techniques like selective breeding, for hundreds of years, and only recently have scientists figured out how to do this directly. Specifically, the first recorded instance of direct genetic modification was in 1973 by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, when they combined the DNA of two different viruses.
Since then, genetic engineering has improved immensely, which, as with most new scientific discoveries, has its positive and negative effects.
Let’s begin with the positives. Among one of the most useful things genetic engineering can do is create medicine. One of the most common of these is insulin for patients with diabetes. Scientists have altered the DNA of bacteria, for example yeast and E. coli, to produce insulin similar to the insulin humans produce. The gene in human DNA that codes for insulin production is removed from a human cell and then placed into the bacteria. When the bacteria cells divide, insulin is produced. After the insulin undergoes a purification process, it is packaged and ready to be used by those who need it. Genetic engineering can also be used to enhance crops. This means that we can make them grow faster, grow larger, and to be resistant to bacteria. Some crops have also been modified to be able to grow with less nutrients available. The first genetically modified foods began being sold around 1994. The entirety of generation z has been eating genetically modified foods since the day we were born, so what exactly are the negative effects of genetic engineering?
At the surface, genetic engineering seems like it’s harmless, but once you take a deeper look at the modified organism, you can see that not everything is exactly as it should be. In genetically modified crops, the nutrients inside of them are significantly less than those that are not modified. Chicken is also a fantastic example of this. In genetically modified chickens, the amount of fat increases by over 220%, as well as a significant decrease in the amount of protein. Genetic engineering can make a crop resistant to certain pathogens, but pathogens are organisms too that undergo evolution. Pathogens can evolve to overcome any resistance that we modified crops to have, strengthening the pathogen and making it harder to stop. It has also been observed in plants modified to grow well in a drought that they are more sensitive to sunlight, meaning too much sunlight could be harmful to them. Genetic engineering also has environmental consequences. Eventually, the modified organisms will make their way into the wild. With their modifications, they will likely survive easier than non-modified organisms, which will decrease diversity and harm the ecology of that environment. Allergens have also been seen passing to different organisms when modified. While knowing the pros and cons of genetic engineering are important, they aren’t the most important thing to discuss when debating whether or not it’s a good idea. The most important thing to consider is if it is ethical.
I won’t go into this side of the issue too deeply, but this is where most of the debate over genetic engineering happens. Usually people are either all for it or all against it. People can debate over whether or not we should use it on plants and animals, and people too, but when it comes to bacteria and viruses, most people don’t care and even encourage it. However, as we are unfortunately well aware of at this time, microorganisms can be extremely harmful. If a mistake is made when working with bacteria or a virus, the aftermath could be catastrophic. There are already many antibiotic resistant bacteria (like mycobacterium tuberculosis, a strain of tuberculosis resistant to multiple types of antibiotics), and a mishap when trying to modify something can result in stronger diseases. While this is simply speculation on my part, it is still likely that this can occur.
Here’s the thing. When it comes to genetic engineering, the wide reach it has over various aspects of our lives, and the amount of knowledge we have about its effects on us and the environment, the equation seems unbalanced. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only been around for a short amount of time, so we can still learn about it and make changes that need to be made. The only piece of advice I have to give is to look for items in the grocery store marked non-GMO. If it doesn’t have that label, most likely, it has been modified in some way. Take what you will from this article, and I urge you to do more research for yourself, but who am I kidding? The next time someone takes a warning from an article like this will be when pigs fly.
Gaille, Louise. “13 Advantages and Disadvantages of Genetic Engineering.” Vittana.org, 16 Dec. 2019, vittana.org/13-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-genetic-engineering.
“Genetic Engineering.” Genome.gov, www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Genetic-Engineering.
Patra, Satyajit, and Araromi Adewale Andrew. “Human, Social, and Environmental Impacts of Human Genetic Engineering.” Journal of Biomedical Sciences, IMedPub, 29 Oct. 2015, www.jbiomeds.com/biomedical-sciences/human-social-and-environmental-impacts-of-human-genetic-engineering.php?aid=7264.
“What Is Genetic Engineering?” Facts, The Public Engagement Team at the Wellcome Genome Campus, 17 Feb. 2017, www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-genetic-engineering.