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Genetic Engineering

 

 

The patent number for umbilical cord blood cells.

 

 

We are fast approaching arguably the most consequential technological threshold in all of human history: the ability to alter the genes we pass to our children. Crossing this threshold would irrevocably change the nature of human life and human society. It would destabilize human biology. It would put into play wholly unprecedented social, psychological and political forces that would feed back upon themselves with impacts quite beyond our ability to foresee, much less control.

Advocates of this new techno-eugenics look forward to the day when parents quite literally assemble their children from genes listed in a catalog. They celebrate a future in which our common humanity is lost as genetically enhanced elites increasingly acquire the attributes of separate species. The implications for individual integrity and autonomy, for family and community life, for social and economic justice and indeed for world peace are chilling. Once humans begin cloning and genetically engineering their children for desired traits we will have crossed a threshold of no return.

 

What is Genetic Engineering?

Inheritable characteristics are passed from one generation to the next through DNA, a molecule that is present in all of our cells. Scientists think of DNA as being divided into genes, or units of genetic information. In the past three decades, scientists have learned how to mix and match characteristics among unrelated creatures by moving genes from one creature to another. This is called "genetic engineering." Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genetic makeup has been altered by the insertion or removal of small fragments of genes or genetic material (e.g., DNA, RNA, plasmids), in order to create or enhance desirable characteristics. The technology is often called "modern biotechnology" or "gene technology," and sometimes also "recombinant DNA technology" or "genetic engineering."

The term "biotechnology" is often used to promote genetic engineering but this is misleading. Genetic engineering is one kind of biotechnology, and biotechnology is a science where the purpose is to modify the natural and biological processes of living organisms—not necessarily the genes. Biotechnology is not new or revolutionary and includes ancient techniques such as crop selection, the selective breeding of livestock, and more recently, developing vaccines and antibiotics. However, genetic engineering is a new form of biotechnology because it can involve the transfer of genes between species unrelated in nature, resulting in transgenic organisms or crops.

 

We have already entered the genetic age. The question is do we ignore it and hope it will go away, or do we take action? The nuclear industry is fading now because people took action at the start of the nuclear age, regardless of the huge vested interest involved. The biotech industry itself is now being fuelled by its own momentum—massive investment in research means that companies are now seeking a return, and there is much money to be made. Europe's industry is growing rapidly—the present total of 716 companies is up from 584 in 2005, while the United States has a total of 1,287 biotech companies. The cloning of Dolly the sheep was heralded as an earner for stocks and shares by the biotech industry. Companies such as Monsanto are obviously not going to sit back and wait for the public to decide if they want the products. The recent enforcement of their genetically engineered soy on the European market demonstrates that. Their recent investment in public education is just starting to appear in Europe, and the pack developed includes 'educational' material for children.

Genetic "engineers" are now moving genes around among plants, animals, and bacteria on a regular basis, but with very little understanding of the possible consequences, and almost no safety testing. Now genetic engineers are starting to modify the genes of humans, using three approaches: 1) cloning, 2) somatic cell manipulation, and 3) human germline manipulation. The Government believes that one day everyone will have a complete reading of their genetic make-up and the diseases they will get will be predicted and prevented. Lifestyle advice, medication and perhaps the food you eat would be tailored to your individual genes.

Cloning: Cloning uses the DNA of an existing individual to create a new individual. The best-known example is Dolly, a sheep that was cloned using DNA from a sheep that had been dead for six years. A human has not yet been cloned, but a team of researchers including an American and an Italian recently announced they are going to attempt it.

Somatic cell manipulation: Somatic cells are all the cells of the body that do not pass DNA on to the next generation. Somatic cell manipulation is currently practiced in some medical research centers under the name "gene therapy." For example, researchers are experimenting with ways to introduce genes into the blood cells of patients with hemophilia (a blood disorder), and into cells of the immune system in patients with Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID), a rare inherited disorder of the immune system. The idea is to "correct" the genetic component of the disease instead of, or in addition to, treating the disease with drugs. Hundreds of trials have been carried out, but in most cases the patients have not been cured.

Germline manipulation: Germ cells (sperm and eggs) do pass DNA from one generation to the next. Germline manipulation refers to changes in the germ cells changes which will be inherited by successive generations. Designing future generations through germline manipulation is still in the realm of science fiction, but just barely: some influential scientists are arguing that it should be attempted.

Some researchers see somatic cell manipulation as a promising way to treat serious diseases, such as cystic fibrosis. Other genetic engineers may have less idealistic motives. Engineering human cells is technically appealing, and the mere fact that we possess this technology is, for some people, sufficient reason to use it. Some technological optimists are fascinated by the idea of germline engineering as a way to "take evolution into our own hands" by redesigning the genetic information in our children's cells.

Engineering human cells could also be a big money-maker. For example, one company hopes to create a market in "organ repair" generating cloned cells and tissues to insert into existing people's organs. Other companies and researchers simply want to keep open the option to engineer human cells because it could be profitable in the future, even if they have not made investments in doing it right now.

Gene Patenting

Although scientists now know the DNA sequences of many human genes, they don't understand how most of them work. While the rest of us await the integration of these molecules into an intelligible language of life, scientists, businessmen and the government squabble over what value to assign the millions of information snippets.

"Gene patenting" is a broad term referring to the patenting of either a process that involves isolation of DNA (where DNA refers to either DNA or associated materials such as RNA) as well as to a chemical substance related to DNA. After it was announced in June 2000 that the human genome was almost completely mapped, private and public entities unleashed a flood of patent requests for genes and small pieces of gene sequences (known as expressed sequence tags, or ESTs).

While the total number of "working" human genes is expected to be somewhere between 28,000 and 100,000, it represents only about four percent of the total human genome. The remainder of the genetic information is made up of sequences whose functions are currently unknown but may have future uses.

 

Concerns Over Gene Patenting

To create a patentable gene sequence, an individual must find something in nature, isolate it, and alter it in order to create something deemed ‘useful’. Much of the debate in favor of creating gene sequences revolves around society and corporate-driven company ownership issues. As a creator of a gene sequence, individuals or companies expect ownership of the creation as well as protection from anyone else stealing the idea. If companies were not able to patent gene sequences, then other companies could exploit the original creators’ ideas and ultimately profit themselves.

Of course the patents in question revolve around the human genome, which no corporation rightfully owns. In addition, corporations use the argument that many of these gene sequences correlate with diseases like breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The creation of such gene sequences give merit to the idea of gene manipulation, as the created gene sequence could lead to increased protection against bodily invaders.



Company-Owned Intellectual Property and Disregard for Humanity

But do all of these reasons for the pursuit of gene manipulation and biotechnological advancements really stand a chance against why we shouldn’t be so eager and hasty to patent genes? According to the United States government, gene patents are intellectual property to the companies who have created them. As gene sequences continue to be created, so does the potential for a large amount of the human genetic coding to be owned by major corporations. If in the future these patented genes are utilized in the creation of already admitted experimental animals or controversial hybrids, companies will essentially own a portion of the living creature itself. With gene patenting comes company-owned people and animals whom are actually walking intellectual property. It shows a venal disregard for humanity when someone can claim “ownership” of a particular gene, which we all share in our bodies.

 

The issue of people becoming company-owned intellectual property is concerning, but it is important to remember that the genes are only owned as far as corporate law is concerned. In reality, no company can own a portion of your genetic existence.

 

Another obvious concern is that we simply don’t know what could happen using this technology. Many people are worried about what this means for the future of mankind -- long term and short term. This kind of practice is much more intrusive than influential on the human race. No one truly knows just how impactful gene patents will be on the population, or even how the possibility of negative outcomes can be properly dealt with.

 

Biotechnology and Playing God

While there are many reasons not to support the idea of gene patenting and genetic manipulation in general, one reason often stands above all others – playing God. When tampering with the genetic code that is naturally present in living creatures on this earth, biotechnology companies responsible for creating experimental human hybrids and chimeras are playing the role of God. Similar to how having control of viruses could lead to potential bioweaponization, gene manipulation could also have a very detrimental impact on humanity and all life forms – only the outcome would seem much more irreversible.

Patented Umbilicus'Owning' A Primal Form

Every contentious ethical issue is being abused by this technology, but one of the most fundamental—the ownership of life—is being abused solely to protect individual companies' investments in research. This includes one of the most primal forms of life—the umbilical cord—which has now been patented. This patent is at least being contested in Europe, but that it happened at all shows the consequences of this technology for the whole of humanity. Other patents on animals are as hideous as their implications. Our scientists have created creatures such as the Oncomouse, genetically engineered to be born with a fatal disease, not only literally born to die but also born to be experimented on in a laboratory.

Genetic engineering is the only sector in which experiments on animals is increasing, apart from biological warfare. Thanks to our popular campaigns, animal testing for cosmetics is on the way out, but pigs with human hearts and cloned animals are now being produced for our 'health'. Behind closed doors, a range of deformed animals have been produced in the blind pursuit of the ultimate control of life. Two companies in this country even tried to dispose of the 'failed' animals in the human food chain (and nearly did--except the problem of how to label them tripped them up).

Gene Spillage

We are eating food which is genetically engineered. Accidents will and have happened. Spillage of genetically engineered seeds has already happened in Britain, but reporting of such accidents is dependent on the companies themselves. In Canada, genetically engineered seeds have already been recalled from farmers because Monsanto had mixed them with seeds that were not approved for use. One of the more direct threats from these trials comes from GE pollen in honey gathered by bees (presently from test sites, but from commercial sites from next year). MAFF research has already concluded that this could pose a serious health risk in itself, through the consumption of live DNA which could be toxic or allergenic.

GM Weapons

The fact is, the new genomic information being discovered and used for commercial genetic engineering in the fields of agriculture, animal husbandry and medicine is potentially convertible to the development of a wide range of novel pathogens that can attack plant, animal and human populations. Moreover, unlike nuclear bombs, the materials and tools required to create biological warfare agents are easily accessible and cheap, which is why this kind of weapon is often referred to as the "poor man's nuclear bomb". A state-of-the-art biological laboratory could be built and made operational with as little as $10,000-worth of off-the-shelf equipment and could be housed in a room as small as 15ft by 15ft. All you really need is a beer fermenter, a protein-based culture, plastic clothing and a gas mask.

Equally frightening, thousands of graduate students in laboratories around the world are knowledgeable enough in the rudimentary uses of recombinant DNA and cloning technology to design and mass-produce such weapons. Ironically, while the Bush administration is now expressing deep concern over bioterrorism, just this summer the White House stunned the world community by rejecting new proposals to strengthen the biological weapons convention. The stumbling block came around verification procedures that would allow governments to inspect US biotech company laboratories. The companies made it clear that they would not tolerate monitoring of their facilities for fear of theft of commercial secrets.

Biological warfare involves the use of living organisms for military purposes. Biological weapons can be viral, bacterial, fungal, rickettsial, and protozoan. Biological agents can mutate, reproduce, multiply, and spread over a large geographic terrain by wind, water, insect, animal, and human transmission. Once released, many biological pathogens are capable of developing viable niches and maintaining themselves in the environment indefinitely. Conventional biological agents include Yersinia pestis (plague), tularemia, rift valley fever, Coxiella burnetii (Q fever), eastern equine encephalitis, anthrax and smallpox.

Biological weapons have never been widely used because of the danger and expense involved in processing and stockpiling large volumes of toxic materials and the difficulty in targeting the dissemination of biological agents. Advances in genetic engineering technologies over the past decade, however, have made biological warfare viable for the first time. Recombinant DNA "designer weapons" can be created in many ways. The new technologies can be used to program genes into infectious micro- organisms to increase their antibiotic resistance, virulence and environmental stability. Scientists say they may be able to clone selective toxins to eliminate specific racial or ethnic groups whose genotypic makeup predisposes them to certain disease patterns. Genetic engineering can also be used to destroy specific strains or species of agricultural plants or domestic animals.

The new genetic engineering technologies provide a versatile form of weaponry that can be used for a wide variety of military purposes, ranging from terrorism and counterinsurgency operations to large-scale warfare aimed at entire populations. Most governments, including the US, claim that their biological warfare work is only defensive in nature and point out that the existing biological weapons treaty allows for defensive research. Yet it is widely acknowledged that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between defensive and offensive research in the field.

In the 20th century, modern science reached its apex with the splitting of the atom, followed shortly thereafter by the discovery of the DNA double helix. The first discovery led immediately to the development of the atomic bomb, leaving humanity to ponder, for the first time in history, the prospect of an end to its own future on Earth. Now, a growing number of military observers are wondering if the other great scientific breakthrough of our time will soon be used in a comparable manner, posing a similar threat to our very existence as a species. No laboratory, however contained and secure, is failsafe. Natural disasters such as floods and fires, and security breaches are possible. It is equally likely that terrorists will turn to the new genetic weapons.

We know about more than one hundred different neuropeptides—for example, beta-endorphin, encephalins and serotonin. There are many that alter our thinking processes, our emotions. You can do practically everything with neurotransmitters. You can make people depressed or overexcited. We need to keep in mind that the idea is not new. Many intelligence services in many countries, especially like the former Soviet Union, use such approaches to interrogate people. They use neurotransmitters to change people's moods, to suppress people's will. You can make a normal person crazy using these types of substances. We know how they work.

Most neurotransmitters are peptides, each peptide can be encoded by a gene and inserted into a virus, such as an adenovirus. It is not so difficult-you can insert practically anything into a virus. This work is now well under way because it started in Russia in the 1970s.

 

 

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