The FDA recently made it legal to sell meat and milk from cloned animals, declaring cloned organisms to be just as safe for human consumption as conventionally-bred animals. While that idea makes me squeamish, they’re almost certainly right. However, there is a broader argument to be made here. Regardless of whether cloned milk becomes mainstream, it’s important to understand that there is nothing inherently wrong or evil about genetically modified organisms (GMO’s).
First, on a practical level, there are applications of genetic engineering that incur next to no costs or risks, but have huge and fundamental benefits to society. Saying “no” to genetic engineering is saying “no” to the entire field of microbiology research today and most of the recent advances in the field of medicine. The basic tools of the trade are gene deletions, amplifications, and recombinations…all if it, genetic engineering. These techniques have been used by scientists since the 1970’s.
On a moral level, it is important to realize that gene manipulation is actually very much a part of the natural world. Scientists didn’t invent the tools to do it, they discovered them. Tampering with genes exactly how viruses make their living and how bacteria share useful survival traits among themselves. Our own cells splice and move genes around on our DNA every now and then too. It’s just that when we do it in a lab, it’s called biotechnology.
Genetic engineering consists of adapting natural processes, such as bacterial plasmids and viruses, to achieve specific aims. While it kind of sucks, it’s hard to be ethically opposed to a cold virus inserting its DNA into your cells and forcing them to make more cold viruses. Is it a huge moral leap to have scientists use equivalent viruses to insert genes that make bacteria create life-saving insulin for diabetics instead of creating more copies of a virus? We used get insulin from cadavers…most people would agree that synthesizing it in a lab is a vast improvement.
Genetic engineering isn’t just about shuffling genes around; we sometimes make new ones by fiddling with existing ones, or even build them from scratch. But there is nothing objectionable about that. First, genetic mutation is a part of evolution, so new genes in themselves are not novel. Second, humans constructing DNA should not be regarded as fundamentally different from humans constructing other biochemical molecules. We already manufacture artificial hormone disruptors like atrazine that can change the sex of an organism simply through exposure. We make testosterone and estrogen from scratch, and neurotransmitter mimics too.
DNA is often touted in magazines as the building blocks of life, the essence and blueprint of everything. But, that’s really not the opinion of the biologists, whose “central dogma” includes two other molecules: RNA and proteins. The relationship between your environment and the expression of your genes, which ones get turned on and off and when, is complex and can vastly change who you are. DNA is far from be-all-end-all of everything. It is powerful because it is heritable, but that is a practical argument. To say DNA is morally on a different plane because it can be inherited is to say that it is ok to transform one organism, but not ok to transform its offspring. There is no logic in that.
The question that should be asked is not, “Is it categorically wrong to make up genes?” but “What is a new gene’s purpose and what are the possible implications of its use?” It’s not the tool that should be judged, it’s the purpose for which it is used. And so we enter the realm of GM crops, the topic of my next column. For now, what I hope to have dissuaded you from is a conviction, or even a vague opinion, that genetic engineering should be categorically rejected.