Genetic engineering has been a controversial subject for as long as it’s been in existence. Scientists have been accused of “playing God”, or, at the least, of moving too quickly with their experiments and innovations. People worry that, no matter what benefits might be introduced by engineering plants and animals -or even humans -, there’s bound to be new problems introduced as well. Some argue that the work of engineers goes against nature; others may have an open mind about the possibilities, but still urge caution and patience.
Genetic engineering is accomplished by the manipulation of genomes, which are components of all living things. A genome is a kind of blueprint for a life form; it contains a full set of “instructions” for the growth and development of a specific plant or animal. By altering these “instructions”, scientists can change the characteristics and/ or behavior of living things. Because genes determine every perceivable feature of every life form, the possibilities for manipulation seem limitless.
So what have scientists been able to accomplish, on a practical level, thanks to this knowledge? They have genetically modified corn plants so that they would be poisonous to corn borers, insects that were creating serious problems for farmers. Genetic engineering saved Hawaii’s papaya crop in the mid-1990’s when a deadly virus was ravaging it. Fast-growing farmed fish have been developed (though, as of this writing, not yet made available in supermarkets). Pigs have been engineered so that they can digest much more phosphorus, which otherwise would pass through their systems and cause environmental problems when it washed into rivers and lakes. Scientists have even found a way to produce spider silk (one of the strongest materials on Earth, five times stronger than steel) via goat’s milk.
One of the most controversial applications of genetic engineering has been cloning. Whereas typically an animal’s genome will be composed of a mixture of genes from both its mother and father, cloning creates an exact copy of the genome of only one parent. When scientists apply their knowledge to repair “faulty” genes in humans, also, they face a lot of resistance. People’s abhorrence of such practices can stem from their religious affiliation, morality, or simple fear of the unknown. There are always unknown factors introduced when life forms are tampered with on a genetic level. The proponents of genetic engineering argue that such risks are inherent in any invention and innovation. We can’t know the possible consequences of any kind of technology, for example, until we use it and then observe how it impacts upon everything else.
It has been pointed out that genetic engineering typically accomplishes the same things that selective breeding has for centuries: it merely does it much faster. Perhaps the speed of the process is what has given rise to much of the fear that surrounds it. Will we be able to gauge the unintended consequences of genetic engineering in time to avert possible disasters, if the work is proceeding so rapidly? There is no simple answer to the question. Much has already been accomplished in the areas of health and agriculture; there is speculation that, given time, knowledge of genomes can eradicate illness and produce enough food to feed the planet. Or, as opponents often point out, it may merely introduce as many new problems as it solves.