Saturday, November 10, 2007

Genetic Engineering

Note: The following is a rant on a topic outside my area of expertise. Please correct me if I have my facts wrong!

I was riding the bus back from campus yesterday when I overheard two Cornell students in the midst of a heated discussion. Their disagreement came about because, although they were both in favor of supporting sustainability and the environment, one of them couldn't believe that the other was in favor of genetic engineering. When the other student pressed the first about what was so wrong with genetic engineering, the first student responded: "It's genetic engineering, as in, engineering genes! We're creating new genes that have never been seen in nature before!"

I have some problems with this argument. First, the visceral reaction that engineering genes is somehow forbidden territory is nonsense. We have been engineering genes for centuries. Every domesticated animal and plant has been mutated by selective breeding so that, in some cases, they scarcely resemble their original species. Take a look at a Shar Pei or a Sphynx (hairless cat) and tell me those are not the result of genetic experiments. Corn is another example: it has been bred from a wild American grass to the towering stalk with bulging ears that we are used to.

Genetic engineering is only different from selective breeding in that we have much more precise control, and that new genes can be introduced. I fail to see how introducing a gene to tomatoes that makes them resist frost, or to soybeans that prevents insects from eating them, is a bad thing. It seems like a pretty fine line to walk if making crops yield more through breeding is good, but through genetic engineering is bad.

The student's comment that we are introducing never-before-seen genes is also, as far as I know, wrong. I don't think we're at the point where a geneticists have little keyboards with the letters AGCT and they can just type out a code for a gene that does what they want. Genetic engineering is limited to taking genes from one organism and splicing them into the DNA of another organism. We're not making new genes, we're making new combinations. The same can be said for sexual reproduction.

There are some valid concerns of course, and I don't claim to be an expert on this topic. One concern is that the genetically modified species could interbreed with wild species and affect the ecosystem. This is a real risk; similar to introducing non-indigenous species, a genetically modified species could out-compete its rivals and mess things up. But of course, since I feel like playing devil's advocate: isn't that how evolution works? Whether the advantage comes from
a natural or lab-induced mutation, the result is the same.

There's also the question of ethics: "Is it 'right' to modify species to fit our needs?" Again I point to the precedent of thousands of years of breeding. If it is morally ok for us to make breeds of dogs that can barely function, I think it's ok for us to make species that have a survival advantage.

As I said, I am not an expert on this topic. If you disagree with me, that's fine. If I have my facts wrong, I encourage you to bring it to my attention! I'll edit this post or make a follow-up if I'm wrong.

4 comments:

Mike A said...

Hey Ryan

I like the new blog! Interesting posts so far, and I think science blogs are always a good thing! I decided to rise to your challenge, though, and post some thoughts about genetic engineering. I think my response turned out a little long and rambling, so sorry about that. Anyway, here goes:

While not categorically opposed to it, I am pretty uncomfortable with genetic engineering. You're totally right that it's not "unnatural" or anything, but that doesn't make it automatically okay; there are plenty of "natural" processes that it's inadvisable for humans to exploit. Offhand, I'd point to burning lots of fossil fuels, assembling critical masses of fissile materials, and introduction of invasive species as examples.

Now, someone might say that these things aren't bad in themselves, only dangerous if taken to excess or used without heeding consequences. The same holds true for genetic engineering. It's true that we can accomplish pretty much the same thing over generations of breeding. The problem with genetic engineering is that it lets us change things much faster than we can apprehend and adapt to the consequences of our changes. Thus, we can cause a lot more damage using genetic engineering recklessly than we can breeding things recklessly.

I think the model I would like to see for genetic engineering is that of invasive species. These too are "natural", but it's pretty universally accepted now that introducing one to new areas is harmful and should be avoided until a careful study of all the potential ramifications is conducted. I'd say the same for genetic engineering: the rule should be to avoid it, and the exception should be in case of lots of careful study showing that the benefits will outweigh the costs. For a good example of how this works for invasive species, see the Hawaii Invasive Species Council.

One last point. Biologists actually can type out DNA sequences now, they don't have to wait for generations of breeding. Do a google search for "custom gene synthesis", for example, or check out an example order form at http://www.genscript.com/gene_synthesis.html. Biology is crazy!

Hope you're doing well

control valves said...

I believe construction of such projects requires knowledge of engineering and management principles and business procedures, economics, and human behavior.

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