Introduction to Genetic Engineering
Imagine a world where there is no hunger. A world where cancer, AIDS, and other dreaded diseases no longer impair human lives. A world where people can choose exactly what their children will look like. This may sound like science fiction, but recently advances in a technology called genetic engineering have led some people to predict that these changes and others like them may come about in the not-so-distant future.
Genetic engineering--also called gene splicing or gene cloning--has made it possible for scientists to manipulate genes, the basic units of heredity. The cells of all living organisms contain genes. Genes carry chemical information that tell a cell what protein it should produce. They help to determine many of an organinsm's characteristics. By changing the genes of an organism, scientists can give the organism and its descendants different traits. Many scientists think they can alter human evolution as well as that of plants and animals.
Supporters of this technology point out the many potential advantages, such as increased food production, revolutionary new medicines, and even enhanced human intelligence, physical beauty, and strenght. Opponents, however, argue that the damages outweigh the benefits. They caution that we know too little about this technology and its long-term effects. Will the future bring a race of made-to-order humans who have lost forever the great gift of genetic diversity? Is it ethical to create new animals to use as medicine factories or organ donors for humans? Will genetic engineering be misused in the hands of the economically or politically powerful?
Once genetic engineering becomes wildspread, opponents warn, there will be no turning back. They compare it to other technologies, such as chemical pesticides and nuclear energy, which were welcomed in their early stages but were later revealed to have dangerous side effects that still threaten us.
On the other hand, since this advanced technology exists, is it right to halt research that has the potential to save lives and improve the environment? Should experiments in gene therapy be stopped when they have already helped some victims or rare diseases? Should the manufacture of genetically engineered hormones be stopped--even if it means depriving those who deperately need them? Will the opportunity to develop vaccines that could conquer AIDS and other disorders be lost?
For better or worse, genetic engineering will affect the environment and food supply. It will untimately change the way we think about medicine. As the "age of genetics" unfolds, keep in mind the words of the late Senator J. William Fulbright. He cautioned years ago that "Science has radically changed the conditions of human life on earth. It has expanded our knowledge and our power, but not our capacity to use them with wisdom."
The "genetic revolution" is already changing our lives. A thorough examination of these issues will help explain how this powerful scientific technology can be developed responsibly.
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