There is a lengthy list of popular films, television shows, and novels based on the premise of recombinant DNA technology gone awry: Orphan Black, Splice, Jurassic Park, Resident Evil, Rampage, and let’s not forget The Island of Doctor Moreau, a classic. Scientists messing around with nature, messing around with the building blocks of life seems like a sure-fire path to the apocalypse.

Even in my own novel, Father of Contention, a misguided scientist, Renner Scholtz, becomes obsessed with discovering the underlying genetic basis for supernatural abilities in humans, eventually developing a blueprint to create a superhuman. Spoiler alert for the series—this leads to the rise of a highly powerful mutant army that attempts to corrupt the world.

What is our obsession with science, genetic engineering in particular, taking an evil turn and eventually leading to the world’s demise? Is it because the prospect is truly there? Should we be worried about the fate of the human race as science progresses at an astonishing rate, with the potential of getting beyond the reach of our control? How far can we push the envelope before the consequences outweigh the benefits?

As with any debate, there are two sides to the coin. Science has saved our hide more than once, with the discovery of penicillin and other life-saving medications and treatments: it’s hard to deny the benefits to the human race that science has to offer. As a science major, I strongly support the study of the human body and the quest to cure all disease, and protect nature and our environment from pollution and other threats.

Science is essential to our continued existence. The trick then becomes finding the fine line between pursuing research that is beneficial to the human race versus the alternative. It’s a little like walking a tight rope, the rope being the moral high ground (studies based on understanding illnesses, developing treatments, and cures, solving environmental issues), while the yawning abyss on each side represents the shadier areas of research (self-enhancement, biological warfare, and designer babies), having a more selfish nature, and no one knows the actual depth of that abyss, or if there is a safety net to catch us should we fall. The results could be catastrophic.

But, before we can begin to properly debate the topic, we need to look at the full picture of recombinant DNA technology: what it is exactly, what discoveries researchers have made thus far, and what direction future research is heading. Only then can we look at and fully understand the actual benefits and risks to our wellbeing that this advanced biotechnology brings.

Recombinant DNA Technology:

What is recombinant DNA technology? It is when two DNA molecules are combined from two separate organisms or species and then are transferred to an organism that serves as host in order to study a specific trait or characteristic, develop new medication or treatments for disease, or to boost agriculture and industry. This technology allows us to isolate a gene or gene segment to better analyze its nucleotide sequence, cause it to mutate and then reinsert it into a living organism to study the results.

Benefits:

  1. Diagnosis of genetic diseases –Recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology allows us to study the human genome and diagnose hereditary diseases. Past research has helped us to isolate which genes are implicated in many diseases, illnesses, and disorders and we are now able to predict if a person is predisposed to a certain condition. For instance, the detection of a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene has been linked to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Direct-to-consumer marketing companies now exist, such as 23andMe where you can send in a sample of your DNA via cheek swab. Using genomic sequencing, they will then determine if you are at risk for certain diseases which can lead to prevention in some cases. For example, you can opt for a mastectomy if you have the mutated BRCA gene.
  2. Gene therapy – With certain illnesses, once the faulty or missing gene is identified, it can be replaced or repaired through recombinant DNA technology. There are two methods of gene therapy: somatic vs. germline therapy. In somatic cell gene therapy, the genes are altered in one organism or individual so it only affects that organism, and the changed genes are not passed on to the offspring, making it a safer alternative. This allows for the potential cure of many diseases, including but not limited to cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and viral infections such as AIDS. Germline therapy, on the other hand, alters the DNA in the egg or sperm of the organism, changes which then would be passed on to subsequent offspring. This form of therapy is controversial and unethical as it involves experimentation on fetuses which have no say in the matter, and other unpredictable mutations may occur.
  3. Gut health – Research shows that the number of specific bacteria in the gut has a positive effect on health and that our DNA has a strong influence on the type and number of microbes that reside there, dictating which ones flourish or are diminished. Using recombinant DNA technology, a complete microbial genome is established and then promoted through genetically modified strains of probiotics which can boost gut health and the immune system overall, and prevent or improve other health issues, such as reducing obesity levels and improving digestive issues.
  4. Diagnosis and discovery of viruses – Using rapid DNA sequencing, viruses and infectious diseases can be detected, studied, classified, diagnosed, tracked and contained. For example, 99 Ebola viruses were decoded within the first 24 days in the Sierra Leone (2014) outbreak using rapid DNA sequencing. The fast results led to the disease being isolated and mostly contained before it spread into a global pandemic.
  5. Epigenomics – This is a field of study that characterizes and charts the biological mechanisms of genes, determining which chemical compounds and mechanisms will allow the genes to be expressed or silenced. This information helps us to understand the body and health, and can aid in predicting the genetic predisposition to several diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, addictions, psychiatric disorders, markers for aging, and cancer progression. This information is then used to develop medications that can inhibit or stabilize the epigenetic markers, and currently ones are being developed for cancer and sickle cell disease.
  6. DNA typing – Like a fingerprint, each individual’s DNA sequencing is unique. The collection of blood, skin, semen or hair from a crime scene can be used in solving criminal investigations, often leading to an arrest or the exoneration of a suspect. It can also be used to determine the paternity of a child, as commonly seen on Maury Povich and The Jerry Springer Show.
  7. Human insulin – At present, the types of insulin diabetic’s use are derived from bovine or porcine origins, which can sometimes find humans developing immunity over time, making it less effective. The research goal is to produce human insulin (called Humulin) by taking the insulin gene and inserting it into E. Coli bacterial cells in order to naturally produce insulin in the body. A form of insulin has also been derived from a genetically modified safflower seed (GMO) at the company SemBioSys, providing a promising alternative.
  8. Hepatitis B Vaccine –Recombinant DNA technology was used to develop the Hepatitis B vaccine, reducing deaths from this virus by 85-90%.
  9. GMO – Agriculture uses genetically modified organisms to produce foods that are resistant to specific insects or pathogens, are more resilient, larger in size, have higher stress tolerance, have reduced allergenicity, and that contain more nutrients.
  10. Industry – Recombinant DNA technology is being used to solve environmental issues stemming from industry. For example, the pulp and paper industry is developing a product that will convert pulp waste into ethanol and other usable by-products to reduce pollution.

Risks:

  1. Pollution of gene pool – In germline gene therapy, when egg or sperm cells are genetically manipulated, the mutation can be passed on to progeny. If errors occur, such as the misplacement of a specific gene, the error can affect the organism in many negative ways and the problem will be passed on to future generations creating a new illness or problem, thus permanently polluting the gene pool. In extreme cases, if unpredictable mutations occur that are disadvantageous to the survival of the species, the species may be at risk for extinction.
  2. Spread of virus – Since viruses such as E. Coli work well as vectors for certain gene therapy and research (i.e. the development of the Hep B vaccine), the potential for viruses transmitting from one person to another increases. Also, there is the concern that the virus can mutate, becoming a super virus.
  3. Denial of human rights or animal rights – In germline therapy, the gametes are genetically modified, and the subsequent fetus that develops will have to live with whatever changes have been made to its genome, some which may be beneficial such as avoiding a hereditary disease, or some which may be unpredictable, leading to other illnesses or handicaps. There are many ethical questions when using fetuses for research, and rogue science is a clear and present danger as we are seeing with the scientist He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shezhen, China who performed gene-editing on two twin girls, altering their DNA to protect the girls from HIV. Not only human rights, but animal rights need to be considered when conducting research. Experiments that have questionable purpose or that are not for the improvement of human or animal health and survival should be deemed unethical. Do we really need fish that glow in the dark?
  4. Genetic design and enhancement – Future uses of rDNA has the potential for abuse in regards to germ-line therapy being used to produce designer babies, boosting the presentation of specific characteristics such as I.Q., eye colour, gender, height, etc. With this type of research, Eugenics comes to mind, and we must consider the ethical ramifications that an unbalanced population can pose. Only certain socioeconomic classes would be able to afford this type of technology. The gene pool would also be modified, limited, and the consequences could be quite negative, even resulting in global ramifications.
  5. GMO food and agriculture – If the gene pool becomes polluted through using recombinant DNA technology, the entire ecosystem can become upset as disadvantageous mutations or new strains of illness or disease occur in our food supply. Messing with the genes of our food supply can lead to more virulent strains of illness or disease, super weeds or super pests. We also don’t know the long term effects of GMO foods on people after consuming them over a prolonged period of time. The potential for heightened allergenicity or toxicity from GMO foods also has many people concerned. More research is needed.
  6. Cloning and transgenic animals –When cloning animals or combining different organisms, the gene pool becomes limited. In order for organisms to survive changing environments and conditions, they require a high level of variation in the genes in order to be able to adapt and survive, therefore limiting the gene pool may lead to extinction through the loss of genetic diversity.
  7. Patenting life forms: Patenting life forms becomes an issue when experimenting on humans. If you have watched Orphan Black, you have seen the hypothetical issue of having people who are deemed experiments because scientists have manipulated their genome and created them in the lab, and are thus considered the property of the biotechnology company that created them.
  8. Hybrids – Mixing or combining genes of two different species when not for the use of improving life or our natural habitat is unethical, such as fish that light up in the dark.
  9. Genetic testing and abortion – Genetic testing indicates the increased likelihood of an individual getting a certain disease or illness, which may lead to some people terminating their pregnancies, when in fact the child might not have developed the disease after all. In an even more disturbing line of thought, people may terminate pregnancy based on knowing the gender of the child if it is not the one they desired.

After considering the benefits and risks of rDNA biotechnology, keeping in mind that this is just a small scope of the types of experiments that are being conducted, the prospects are both encouraging and terrifying. A definite need for stringent ethical guidelines exists, however with more and more private companies performing research, the chance of rogue experiments being conducted is a real concern, as we’ve already seen with He Jiankui and the gene edited twin girls. How far away are we from having humans cloned, or even worse, spliced with other life forms? From transgenic animals being created and accidentally or purposefully being released into our ecosystem corrupting our gene pool and food chain?

The moral and ethical limitations set by the government need to focus on protecting and preserving human dignity, encompassing private AND government funded projects. The short and long term consequences of each experiment needs to be weighed and balanced, and the intentions need to be considered (i.e. is the research for personal or selfish gain, such as a company wanting to sell more produce to make more money, or is the research for the greater good and survival of mankind).  We need to avoid the dehumanization of research, people being reduced to a bunch of chemical codes that can be changed on a whim, with scientists manipulating and combining organisms just because they can, and not because there is any greater purpose or need for such experiments. It’s the “could we…should we” debate.

The bottom line is that technology can be unpredictable, and the long term effects often unknown. What does our world look like in twenty years, after all of these experiments have been conducted and time has passed? Is the damage contained enough that we remain unaffected? Or is our genome corrupted? Education on this topic is vital and I strongly recommend doing more of your own research into the topic and voicing concerns if you have any. In the meantime, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to have my Zombie Apocalypse Survival Kit handy just in case!

💋 Lanie Mores

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