Dear Tiki: My name is Trebor. I am 13 years old, and homeschooled this year. I have an assignment to write a paper about Genetic Engineering , and we found your site researching about it. I have been thinking about GE as a possible career choice. Your guide was very interesting, easy to read and informative. I like what you think about this topic and agree that the big businesses are taking over the world, specifically for Genetic Engineering. I thought that I would write to you about my thoughts on GE.
Trebor’s questions follow. My answers are in RED.
I think that Genetic Engineering could someday make humans and animals disease resistant. Do you agree with this?
It’s certainly possible but engineering disease resistance is likely to be most useful in food plants like potatoes. Potatoes are very easily wiped out by blight (which has caused terrible famines) but new GE work using cisgenic engineering — i.e. they contain no genes except what they could have acquired naturally by breeding with other potatoes — could help to solve this problem.
It may make humans live longer and also be able to cure such diseases as cancer and diabetes. Chickens might lay more eggs, and produce more meat. Genetic Engineering could result in more productive agriculture or the development of insecticides that target only certain insects. If Genetic Engineering is successful, this list could go on so much longer, but there are many bad things that can come out of Genetic Engineering if scientists are not on top of this technology.
Like all technologies, GE can be used for good or for bad. Making animals that can produce more milk or meat ignores the animal welfare issues. It also ignores the fact that animals for people to eat need to eat themselves and they convert plant foods (like grains and pulses which people can eat directly) into eggs or meat very inefficiently. Finally there’s the issue of climate change and farming for farming contributes around 20 % of all greenhouse gases, most being from animals.
If Genetic Engineering is not carefully controlled then many, many things might go wrong. It could be used as a weapon, a very lethal weapon that could target a certain race or specific people by their DNA. I hope this never happens, but I think that there is a strong possibility it could if GE gets in the hands of the wrong people.
The frightening thing about what you say is that history tends to show that if something CAN be done, it WILL be done. Humans discovered they could build nuclear weapons. They didn’t have to but they did, partly for fear that enemies would build them first and then use them.
There are people who are against Genetic Engineering. If we stopped all use of GE in industry and research, many of the advances in science we take for granted would have to be stopped. Places that depend on crops for food might starve without genetically engineered insecticides or seeds. I think that Genetic Engineering is one of the most promising technologies to improve the world, and we should continue to develop this amazing science.
I agree that it’s an amazing science but because it is potentially so powerful an instrument, it needs to be very carefully regulated. I don’t know how this can be done but all nations would have to agree to some sort of treaty I suppose. The worries are, as ever, that some GE will be done in secret, either for commercial or military purposes. The one factor which singles out GE from most other human technologies is that once the living transgenic organism is out of the bottle (like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp), there’s no way to get it back. Being alive, it can make copies of itself endlessly and if it’s a bacterium which kills people, that could be very scary indeed. And that, of course, is why biological warfare is banned by international agreement.