Biotechnology is nearly as old as humanity itself. The food you eat and the pets you love? You can thank our distant ancestors for kickstarting the agricultural revolution, using artificial selection for crops, livestock, and other domesticated animals.
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When Edward Jenner invented vaccines and when Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics, they were harnessing the power of biotechnology. And, of course, modern civilization would hardly be imaginable without the fermentation processes that gave us beer, wine, and cheese! Biotechnologists do this by sequencing, or reading, the DNA found in nature, and then manipulating it in a test tube — or, more recently, inside of living cells.
In fact, the most exciting biotechnology advances of recent times are occurring at the microscopic level and smaller! After decades of basic research into decoding the chemical and genetic makeup of cells, biologists in the midth century launched what would become a multi-decade flurry of research and breakthroughs. In the coming decades, scientists will use the tools of biotechnology to manipulate cells with increasing control, from precision editing of DNA to synthesizing entire genomes from their basic chemical building blocks.
And biotechnology may be a crucial ally in the fight against climate change. But rewriting the blueprints of life carries an enormous risk. To begin with, the same technology being used to extend our lives could instead be used to end them. While researchers might see the engineering of a supercharged flu virus as a perfectly reasonable way to better understand and thus fight the flu, the public might see the drawbacks as equally obvious: the virus could escape, or someone could weaponize the research. And the advanced genetic tools that some are considering for mosquito control could have unforeseen effects, possibly leading to environmental damage.
While the risks of biotechnology have been fretted over for decades, the increasing pace of progress — from low cost DNA sequencing to rapid gene synthesis to precision genome editing — suggests biotechnology is entering a new realm of maturity regarding both beneficial applications and more worrisome risks.
Adding to concerns, DIY scientists are increasingly taking biotech tools outside of the lab. For now, many of the benefits of biotechnology are concrete while many of the risks remain hypotheticals, but it is better to be proactive and cognizant of the risks than to wait for something to go wrong first and then attempt to address the damage. Satellite images make clear the massive changes that mankind has made to the surface of the Earth: cleared forests, massive dams and reservoirs, millions of miles of roads.
If we could take satellite-type images of the microscopic world, the impact of biotechnology would be no less obvious. The majority of the food we eat comes from engineered plants, which are modified — either via modern technology or by more traditional artificial selection — to grow without pesticides, to require fewer nutrients, or to withstand the rapidly changing climate.
Manufacturers have substituted petroleum-based ingredients with biomaterials in many consumer goods, such as plastics, cosmetics, and fuels. Your laundry detergent? It almost certainly contains biotechnology. So do nearly all of your cotton clothes. But perhaps the biggest application of biotechnology is in human health. It follows us through childhood, with immunizations and antibiotics, both of which have drastically improved life expectancy. And one company is betting that organ transplant waiting lists can be eliminated by growing human organs in chimeric pigs.
Along with excitement, the rapid progress of research has also raised questions about the consequences of biotechnology advances.
Social and ethical issues
Biotechnology may carry more risk than other scientific fields: microbes are tiny and difficult to detect, but the dangers are potentially vast. Further, engineered cells could divide on their own and spread in the wild, with the possibility of far-reaching consequences.
Biotechnology could most likely prove harmful either through the unintended consequences of benevolent research or from the purposeful manipulation of biology to cause harm. One could also imagine messy controversies, in which one group engages in an application for biotechnology that others consider dangerous or unethical. So, they reasoned that importing a natural predator , the cane toad, could be a natural form of pest control.
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What could go wrong? Well, the toads became a major nuisance themselves, spreading across the continent and eating the local fauna except for, ironically, the cane beetle. To avoid blundering into disaster, the errors of the past should be acknowledged. The world recently witnessed the devastating effects of disease outbreaks, in the form of Ebola and the Zika virus — but those were natural in origin. The malicious use of biotechnology could mean that future outbreaks are started on purpose. Whether the perpetrator is a state actor or a terrorist group, the development and release of a bioweapon, such as a poison or infectious disease, would be hard to detect and even harder to stop.
Unlike a bullet or a bomb, deadly cells could continue to spread long after being deployed.
What is biotechnology?
The US government takes this threat very seriously , and the threat of bioweapons to the environment should not be taken lightly either. Developed nations, and even impoverished ones, have the resources and know-how to produce bioweapons. And new gene editing technologies are increasing the odds that a hypothetical bioweapon targeted at a certain ethnicity , or even a single individual like a world leader, could one day become a reality. While attacks using traditional weapons may require much less expertise, the dangers of bioweapons should not be ignored.
It might seem impossible to make bioweapons without plenty of expensive materials and scientific knowledge, but recent advances in biotechnology may make it even easier for bioweapons to be produced outside of a specialized research lab. And the openness of science publishing, which has been crucial to our rapid research advances, also means that anyone can freely Google the chemical details of deadly neurotoxins.
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All Rights Reserved. However, later debate arose over concerns that recombinant organisms might be used as weapons. The growing debate, initially restricted to scientists, eventually spread to the public, and in , the National Institutes of Health NIH established the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee to begin to address some of these issues. In the s, when deliberate releases of GMOs to the environment were beginning to occur, the U. Adherence to the guidelines provided by the NIH was voluntary for industry.
Also during the s, the use of transgenic plants was becoming a valuable endeavor for production of new pharmaceuticals, and individual companies, institutions, and whole countries were beginning to view biotechnology as a lucrative means of making money Devos et al. Worldwide commercialization of biotech products sparked new debate over the patentability of living organisms, the adverse effects of exposure to recombinant proteins, confidentiality issues, the morality and credibility of scientists, the role of government in regulating science, and other issues.
In the U. This document recommended that risk assessments be performed on a case-by-case basis. Since then, the case-by-case approach to risk assessment for genetically modified products has been widely accepted; however, the U. Although in the past, thorough regulation was lacking in many countries, governments worldwide are now meeting the demands of the public and implementing stricter testing and labeling requirements for genetically modified crops.
Proponents of the use of GMOs believe that, with adequate research, these organisms can be safely commercialized. There are many experimental variations for expression and control of engineered genes that can be applied to minimize potential risks. Some of these practices are already necessary as a result of new legislation, such as avoiding superfluous DNA transfer vector sequences and replacing selectable marker genes commonly used in the lab antibiotic resistance with innocuous plant-derived markers Ma et al.
Issues such as the risk of vaccine-expressing plants being mixed in with normal foodstuffs might be overcome by having built-in identification factors, such as pigmentation, that facilitate monitoring and separation of genetically modified products from non-GMOs. Other built-in control techniques include having inducible promoters e. GMOs benefit mankind when used for purposes such as increasing the availability and quality of food and medical care, and contributing to a cleaner environment. If used wisely, they could result in an improved economy without doing more harm than good, and they could also make the most of their potential to alleviate hunger and disease worldwide.
However, the full potential of GMOs cannot be realized without due diligence and thorough attention to the risks associated with each new GMO on a case-by-case basis.
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Recombinant DNA: Science, Ethics, and Politics
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