“The advance of genetic engineering makes it quite conceivable that we will begin to design our own evolutionary progress” (p. 182). Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction writer, showed extraordinary clairvoyance when he penned that quote in 1977. Genetic engineering is the deliberate manipulation of an organism’s genome to produce desired effects. It represents the cutting edge technologies of this age very well; highly useful, but embroiled in controversy. There are literally numberless applications of genetic engineering today.
First and foremost, genetic engineering can be used to manipulate the genome of plants such as wheat, maize, and corn, giving them enhanced fertility to grow, even in the extreme climates of Africa. They can be given pest-resisting qualities, reducing the amount of chemical that is sprayed around the world. If pursued correctly, this could end the food crisis in less developed countries. We can not only learn about the characteristics of several pandemics that are contracted by millions every year, we can stop the spread of these diseases by the development of vaccines.
These vaccines are doubly important because of the growing incidence of viral infections and the absence of any major antiviral therapy; someday, we might have a vaccine for the HIV virus. Human genetic engineering can be employed to limit the transmission of genetic disorders; an affected person has a chance to have children who will not inherit the disease. And on the controversial side, it can potentially give us control over our appearance, personality and, as a race, “evolutionary progress”.
However, the world of gene manipulation raises complex ethical and sociological questions. If we develop a workable technology for cloning humans, who gets to choose who is cloned? In a world where anyone can be given new life, what will be the conception of mortality, and hence, of life’s purpose? Apart from the moral dilemmas, many scientists believe that without concrete knowledge of the genome of any organism, human interference may produce adverse effects that cannot be anticipated.
There is also the high failure rate of such experiments, which raises the question about the allocation of the already dwindling resources of the world to such endeavors. But like any other technology, genetic engineering can be used judiciously. It can be utilized as a tool for solving some of the biggest problems of our time, hunger, disease and the environment. The risks should not be allowed to dissuade us from making good use of this monumental advance in science. References Asimov, Isaac. (1977). The Beginning and the End. Garden City: Doubleday.