The term genetic engineering was first used in Dragon's Island, a science fiction novel by Jack Williamson in 1951. With the discovery of 'deoxyribonucleic acid' or mitochondrial DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick, this fictional plot started to turn into a reality. Watson and Crick, with their experiments, could prove that DNA was the genetic material that was transferred generation to generation, with genetic information. This genetic information determined all the characteristics of a living being.
The tiny, microscopic DNA contained all the genetic information related to the person, like color of the eyes, hair, skin tone, height, weight, IQ, EQ, diseases, disorders, etc., and was even able to determine a smile or the shape of one's nose. This blueprint of life is the most important ingredient of genetic engineering.
Genetic Engineering Steps
- Gene of interest is isolated.
- Transfer vector is inserted into the genes.
- The vector is transferred into the organism that is to be modified.
- The cells of an organism are transformed.
- Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are selected and separated from those that could not be modified.
This biotechnology was first applied to produce synthetic human insulin. This technology was gradually used to apply to a number of vaccines and drugs that would prove to be beneficial to the human race. It was applied to plants in order to produce genetically modified foods, with higher resistance to infections and high nutritional values.
With the advancement in technologies and major breakthroughs in genetic engineering, more and more scientists are experimenting with human genes. The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2006 has given a major opening to medical companies, to carry out experiments and tests using genetic engineering.
Uses of Human Genetic Engineering
- It could help prevent life-threatening and incurable diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and even HIV/AIDS. There are cases like cardiomyopathy or susceptibility to viruses that can be overcome with the help of this technology.
- Better drugs could be produced that are disease- or gene-specific, and attack the specific genetic mutation in an individual, to help overcome a disease or disorder.
- Many people want to live a longer, healthier life, or are just afraid of death. Such people with a love of life, can place their bets on it to help them live longer. It is possible to increase the average lifespan of an individual to 100 - 150 years. And not just a longer life, but a healthy, long life, free from diseases and disorders. Although this may take a bit longer to achieve, but is does not seem impossible any longer.
- Women have a craze to look young and maintain their beauty for all eternity. The benefits may make it possible to slow down or reverse certain cellular metabolism, that may be able to fulfill this desire to remain 'forever young', in the near future.
- You may have heard of designer clothes, designer bags, designer shoes, and even a designer nose. But have you heard of designer babies? Yes, designer babies are possible to be produced. Parents can choose the characteristics of their babies, like blond with blue eyes, high IQ, fair skin, etc. It may even be possible to choose the talent in your favorite idol to be manufactured (pun intended!) in your baby. For example, a singer like Elvis Presley or maybe a great dancer like Michael Jackson. No, I am not joking, this is all possible with a bit of genetic engineering, within the blueprint of life - DNA.
- One could even try to create super-humans by incorporating specific features of certain animals. For example, one could have super-sharp vision like a hawk, or could outrun a cheetah. One could create a 'Superman' like human who is indestructible.
- Do you remember 'Dolly Sheep'? This was a genetically modified, cloned sheep that is now dead for over 6 years. This world-famous sheep was cloned using the cell from the mammary gland of another sheep. Cloning, it's another aspect that can also be possible. There are many ethical issues of cloning, and it is considered illegal by many governments around the world. It is a crime to clone humans now, but maybe in our quest to produce the perfect beings, cloning will soon become a part of life.
Disadvantages of Human Genetic Engineering
- Man has yet to understand the complexities of nature and how human life is connected and inter-woven with other components of nature. Some scientists are of the opinion that genetic engineering in humans might have destructive results, that may be irreversible.
- Genetic engineering can hamper the genetic diversity in humans if all the defective genes were replaced by functional genes. In such a scenario, all humans will have a similar genetic makeup, and therefore, a new and unknown virus or a disease may affect a much larger population of humans.
- Many questions regarding the ethical and moral issues related to genetic engineering in humans have been raised. These involve inquiries related to whether man should interfere with the natural course of life and suffer unknown consequences.
- Our understanding of human genetics is at a very initial stage. At this level, it might not be a very good idea to use gene therapy as an alternative for conventional methods of treatment of diseases.
- If genetic engineering is used to prolong human life, it will result in an increase in population, and hence, a greater struggle for the limited resources of nature.
- Cloning has ethical issues, and is illegal. At present, it is a crime to clone humans. Many safety concerns have been raised about cloning humans. Ever since the first cloned sheep, Dolly, died in 2003, the society as well as the scientific community is skeptical about moving ahead in the field of human cloning.
There are many possible benefits of genetic engineering in humans, like end of hunger, cure for all ailments, long life, ageless beauty, super intelligent humans, etc. But one should always give a thought to all the disadvantages listed. It is often said that man should not attempt to 'play God'. That's correct. But if God has bestowed us the power to make some beneficial changes to his creations, then we should surely do so wisely.
Genetic engineers have turned into modern-day alchemists, who are searching for the ultimate elixir of life, to produce the genetically modified, perfect human. This precious knowledge is being exploited by greedy men, who are using it just to earn more money. Nothing is bad if exploited within limits. When we harness our present, we should keep in mind all the possible effects it will have on our future. We may not be alive to view the beauty and the ugliness of the future, but our beloved children may have to face the consequences.