Genetic Engineering and Society

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Along with the benefits of genetic engineering described above come numerous actual and potential dangers in its application. Experience with introduction of "natural" nonnative species into an ecosystem has shown the potential for disaster. Often introduced deliberately, they have often been found to occupy unexpected niches in the ecosystem, displacing other organisms. Many examples exist. The kudzu vine was introduced to the southern United States to control erosion, but proliferated beyond control and is destroying some forests in the region. The starling was introduced to the United States from England by groups who wanted to import a representative of each species mentioned by Shakespeare. Starlings soon displaced native songbirds such as the bluebird from the northeast.

Suppose that a new variety of rice were developed by genetic engineering techniques that could be cultured in salt water, increasing arable land availability. Would it become a weed that will choke salt marshes around the world? If a cancer gene were transfected into a common infectious virus, could it spread a new epidemic? If a bacterium were engineered to biodegrade xenobiotic toxic pollutants or oil spills, would it spread to destroy chemicals in useful applications, or infect petroleum stocks?

Some of these risks can readily be discounted, although others remain. The possibility of bacterially transmitted cancer was taken seriously enough by biologists so that in the mid-1970s they agreed to a moratorium on recombinant DNA research until tests showed that transmission did not occur. Infection of oil wells would be limited not by the ability of bacteria to biodegrade oil, which they already are capable of, but rather by the limitations in that environment of water, oxygen, and nutrients such as nitrogen.

Other risks exist in the uses of biotechnology. From the late nineteenth century until World War II, a school of thought called eugenics suggested that the methods of genetics should be turned to improving the human gene pool. This idea led to forced sterilization: first, of various criminal populations, and eventually, of alcoholics and epileptics. The policies were used to restrict immigration of certain Asian and European populations that were termed genetically inferior. Eugenics had its ultimate expression when it provided the "scientific" basis for the racial policies of the Nazis before and during World War II. Where the capability exists, so will the temptation. Will parents seek to amplify the gene for human growth hormone in their offspring so that their children could become heftier football linemen or taller basketball players? The ability to select the gender of one's offspring by amniocentesis and abortion is already causing problems in some cultures.

A more immediate set of risks are the problems of confidentiality and discrimination associated with the newly developed capability to test for genetic predisposition to certain diseases. As mentioned previously, a gene has been discovered that predisposes women to breast cancer. Women who test positive for this gene can protect themselves by aggressive monitoring or by preemptive surgery. However, insurance companies may refuse to issue life or health insurance to women who possess this gene although not all will actually contract the disease. As a result, many women whose family history suggests that they might have the gene refuse to be tested.

Extensive genetic screening of African Americans for the genetic disorder sickle-cell anemia was conducted in the 1970s. However, it has now been practically halted because affected persons were not adequately counseled, some suffered job discrimination as a result, and suspicions arose between the African Americans and the predominantly white medical establishment that administered the program. Three lessons were learned from this:

1. A person must be able to realize a direct benefit from participation in genetic screening, such as by its leading to therapy or prevention.

2. Results must be held in strict confidence.

3. Advice must be provided about the meaning of the outcome for that person, and for his or her relatives.

Controversy exists over whether we should allow new life-forms to be patented. Without patent protection, companies would be reluctant to develop useful new organisms. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued patents for oil spill-eating bacteria and pesticide-resistant crops. Some have sought to patent portions of the humane genome that were sequenced without even knowing their function. However, these patent claims have been denied.

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