Genetic engineering… between the ambitions of science and the limits of human capabilities
Dr. Muhammad Khair Nadman
Genetic engineering (also called genetic modification) is the process of artificially changing the genetic makeup of an organism. These processes involve the transfer of genes from one organism to another so that the organism to which the genes are transferred takes on certain characteristics of the genes of the first organism, and organisms whose genes have been artificially modified are called “genetically modified organisms”. Also, through genetic engineering there is a change in the genetic material of an organism, through direct intervention in genetic processes, and this change is done for more than one purpose, either to produce new materials or to improve the functions of the organism. present in it.
The development of genetic engineering has opened up enormous possibilities in medicine and agriculture. However, this scientific field has also opened the door to raising many sensitive questions regarding the future of the human race and to what extent science can be allowed to manipulate the nature of human genes without causing a catastrophe that could threaten the continuation of living organisms in their current form.
Like Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age, written by historian and biologist Matthew Cobb, raises multiple ethical, social, and cultural questions and questions about this issue.
In 2018, scientists manipulated the DNA of human infants for the first time. This work is one of the discoveries that many scientists have feared since the beginning of the genetic era. Over the past 50 years, geneticists who fear the consequences of using their own techniques have called several times for a temporary halt to their experiments. And they were right to have such fears, genetic engineering could be used to eliminate pests, alter human genes or create dangerous new versions of diseases while trying to prevent future pandemics.
Therefore, many scientists believe that this revolutionary technology is so important that it cannot be left to scientists alone; Because there is no guarantee that only trust in their scientific power can protect humanity from the possibility of events that could create a hellish reality in the future.
Since James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA (the stuff of genes) in 1953, things have become both more promising and more dangerous than they have been for thousands of years.
In all cases, scientists believe that there are positive and negative aspects to genetic engineering.
One of the most prominent benefits of genetic engineering is preventing the transmission of deadly diseases, such as cancer, and infection with insect-borne diseases, such as dengue fever and malaria, can be reduced by sterilizing these insects, such as mosquitoes.
Scientists also believe that genetic engineering helps to reduce hunger around the world, improving the quality of agricultural crops and increasing their productivity, as this helps the development of countries.
On the other hand, unwanted personality traits can be eliminated, because genetic engineering techniques allow us to select and design our genetically preferred traits, such as intelligence, beauty and muscle growth, which of course leads to the abolition of the concept of natural selection.
Genetic engineering can also be used to clone animals to preserve endangered species, as happened with the black-footed ferret, which is the only native ferret in North America.
In 2020, scientists were able to complete the cloning project that began in 2013, which resulted in the birth of a cloned female ferret.
On the other hand, if every human being fulfills their desire to prefer a particular trait, we humans will close the wide window of our genetic diversity with our own hands! Also, using genetic engineering to permanently eliminate disease can lead to loss of control over population growth. Given that disease is a major factor in population control, extending human life using genetic engineering will inevitably lead to an increase in their numbers. As a result, serious problems may arise that threaten the safety and stability of the human race as a whole, such as the availability of jobs, economic inequality, the need to provide a higher level of medical care than is currently available, and the lack of agricultural products to cover and satisfy the needs of all.
This technology can also lead to a higher risk of allergic reactions, since allergens are easily transferred from one crop to another in GM foods. Therefore, pregnant women who eat genetically modified food can endanger their offspring by changing their genetic structure and characteristics. Gene editing is an irreversible process, once it happens, we cannot undo it.
Immediate evolutionary changes carried out by our genetic engineering techniques can show unwanted effects, and some of these effects can reach many critical scenarios, i.e. allergic reactions can lead to the development of a kind of automatic reactions that can threaten our planet and the entire risk of existence.
Concerns about the use of genetic engineering are not secondary, so what we need now are sensible and enforceable rules on how to take advantage of the positive possibilities of genetic engineering while avoiding its disastrous negatives.
In As Gods, Matthew Cobb traces the history of biotech giants, starting with Genentech, one of the first such companies, which produced insulin in 1976, and Monsanto, which has dominated food factory engineering since the 1980s.
Subsequently, Genentech was acquired by the Swiss giant Hoffman-La Roche in 2009, and Monsanto became part of Bayer in 2018.
Observers note that the secrecy of experiments and work in the field of genetic engineering has increased with the advent of commercial competition, and patents now drive research rather than humanitarian issues. It is not surprising that people’s distrust of such companies is increasing almost in parallel with the decline of scientific transparency.
In light of these developments, the field of genetic manipulation has gained one of its most powerful tools, a technology known as CRISPR. The acronym stands for Clustered Regularly Spaced Repeats, which refers to a repeating sequence of DNA in bacteria that controls enzymes that can carry out some type of transfer of genetic material.
Simply put, it’s an efficient and relatively cheap gene-editing tool, and much has already been done with the technique, from creating sterile batches of mosquitoes to China’s controversial experiment in altering the genes of human embryos.
In 2020 alone, nearly 6,000 CRISPR proposals were submitted to agencies worldwide.
Therefore, technology and new scientific techniques are a double-edged sword, because their positive side lies in numerous benefits and direct interventions that can improve and facilitate the life of our species, but if we use them excessively and irrationally, they can lead us towards the abyss and certain death faster and more dangerous than that.which our species can face or control.
In general, this topic and its dimensions are of great importance in the discussions of civil society and human rights circles.
* Syrian researcher and translator