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Genetic Engineering 101 June 9, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Diseases, Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Science in the Media, Technology, Think About It.
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Nick Kim – Genetic Engineering Cartoon

Credit: Nick Kim.

While the cartoon above by one of my favorite cartoonists – Nick Kim – might suggest I’m against the concept of genetic engineering, that isn’t exactly accurate. I’m more a fan of cautious progress, which means that I think we need to be careful about using this technology. The cartoon is a goofy one because it exaggerates some of the real concerns about genetic engineering. You might be wondering what those concerns are? Well, read on!

A Little Primer On Genetic Engineering

I figured it would be cool to give a brief primer on all of this genetic engineering stuff for those who have heard the term but maybe still aren’t too sure exactly what it means! First, think about your genes. Your genes direct lots of neat traits about you such as your eye and hair color. Genetic engineering works to meddle with the genes in an organism, which allows for control over that organism’s traits. You’re maybe thinking about this concept for humans, but the applications for genetic engineering are really diverse.

Some Potentially Good Stuff

With genetic engineering, there are some important benefits but there are also some aspects that concern scientists, researchers and many members of the public. There are even scenarios that are particularly worrisome and the cartoon above is an extreme representation of one of these consequences. But first, let’s check out some of the positive aspects.

Food is one way that genetic engineering can be used to provide benefits for humans. Through genetic engineering, we can create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). One reason scientists create GMOs is to increase the nutritional value of a food. Think about your own diet. Hopefully, you eat lots of different kinds of foods. Even if you don’t, you probably have access to variety – fruits, vegetables, meats and many more.

For a number of countries, the population there is living on a small range of staple foods. This means that they aren’t getting all of the nutrients they need for good health. However, a food such as a carrot can be engineered to have a nutrient it would not normally have or perhaps the nutrient content could be raised. GMOs can also result in fruits and vegetables that are resistant to pests and the poor weather conditions that can reduce the yields for farmers. Not only that, but genetic engineering has applications in medicine and health. Vaccines have been created by this type of technology and synthetic human insulin was developed through genetic engineering.

Uh Oh

Still, the benefits unfortunately don’t come without problems! The creation of GMOs is thought to potentially harm biodiversity, which means that there is less variety of life in the environment. Think about it – if a vegetable is engineered to be tolerant to a herbicide, the herbicide will kill weeds around the vegetable with less impact on the crop. But wait, if nearby animals feed on those weeds, they lose a valuable source of nutrition and are unable to survive. In this way, the biodiversity is harmed.

The Unexpected

Another fear is that GMOs could have unpredictable results. So, this could mean that the food might trigger allergies in a person allergic to nuts even though that person is eating soybeans. How can this happen? If a gene from nuts is inserted into soybeans – perhaps to increase the nutritional value of the soybean, then people who are allergic to nuts would think the soybean is fine to eat. Nope! The gene could prompt changes that trigger an allergic reaction.

Monsters Or Not?

Now, back to that cartoon! Ever seen the scary movie or read the book ‘Frankenstein?’ One of the perceptions of genetic engineering is that it might create a Frankenstein-like organism – a monster that has all sorts of creepy traits. While it’s true that there are issues around genetic engineering and unexpected or uncontrollable results, the comparison to Frankenstein is considered by some people to be a scare tactic that is far from accurately representing the risks of genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is a complicated and controversial subject and you might have your own opinion about whether you support some or all of its applications. As with many types of technology, it is rapidly changing and we’re constantly learning new bits about genetic engineering. Whatever you think about it, try to get involved by learning more from the news, school, friends or your parents. One of the most powerful ways to improve the safety of genetic engineering is to be informed and challenge the stuff that worries us!

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