Genetic Engineering 101

The always relevant and topical Dolittler blog recently posted about “Franken-animals poised to enter the Franken-food supply,” which started a great discussion in the comments. But sadly Dolittler’s comments hate me and randomly reject my replies 9 out of 10 times. I think it’s a subliminal hint.

So here are a few points I’d like you to consider and debate.

(1) Genetic Engineering brings to mind the Frankenstein Monster, and the irony is painful. The creature had no name, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor who created him, and he was not monstrous. He was literate and well read, not a bestial slug. He was well spoken and considerate, not a brutish lumbering mute. But idiots who never read the book distorted the creature beyond recognition.

So too do ignorants with sharpened stakes and torches alight gather to pillory Genetic Engineering as if it were akin to the Frankenstein of b-movies rather than the intelligent and sophisticated product of science giving back life from whence there was death.

(2) Technology is amoral. There is nothing inherently evil nor inherently good about Genetic Engineering, so like any tool we must assess the specifics of its use and the morality of individual applications instead of broad sweeping generalities that confound the efficacy of the technology to do what you want it to do with the degree to which it can be exploited for good or evil.

(3) There are several similar technologies and techniques that involve the intentional manipulation of genetic material. They are not to be confused because their potential for good and harm are quite different and the goals of their dispersal are different. Given that, let’s get some definitions:

* Gene Therapy is the insertion of genes into an individual’s cells and tissues to treat a disease, and hereditary diseases in which a defective mutant allele is replaced with a functional one. Although the technology is still in its infancy, it has been used with some success.

It is important to stress that this is a THERAPY, not a cure. Gene Therapy is the treatment of an individual specimen, and most often a subset of tissues of that individual and not every cell in that individual and certainly not an entire population.

Specifically, the change brought about by Gene Therapy are often localized to a single organ or tissue and are not passed along to the subject’s offspring. This limitation is called the Weismann barrier.

* The Weismann Barrier is the principle that hereditary information moves only from genes to body cells, and never in reverse. In more precise terminology hereditary information moves only from germline cells to somatic cells (that is, soma to germline feedback is impossible).

So Gene Therapy doesn’t uncook the cake and change the recipe, it is simply a means by which we can combat genetic disease expression in an individual. Think of it like an organ transplant. If your family has poor livers and you get a transplant, your future children will be no different after your transplant than before, and they’ll still be at risk.

Gene Therapy has been successfully used to restore vision to dogs blinded by an inherited disease.

So, Gene Therapy is of great interest to those with disease, but it is of little application to dog breeders.

* Genetic Engineering can be used to cure genetic disease, but there is a difference between treating the disease in an individual and in changing the genome that gets passed down to descendants. The greater field of Genetic Engineering has the ability to change what genes are passed on to all future descendants.

This has the potential to permanently eradicate inherited diseases like haemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and Huntington’s disease. This approach also has the ability to target and swap out risk factor genes that lead to complex diseases like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and many cancers.

Beyond disease, GE opens the door to modify alleles for genes that aren’t defective. Swap out blue eyes for brown, olive skin for pale skin, smooth coat for ruff coat, long limbs for short limbs, etc.

(4) GE also has the potential to make radical changes. To add additional genes, not just swap out alleles for existing genes, to attach alien (from another species) DNA to existing genes to serve as markers, and even to cut out genes.

This radical tool is what brings the most controversy into the discussion. The ability to add naturally occurring DNA from one organism into another organism where it would never n
aturally occur.

Examples of adding new genes that are already being used by science and industry are glow in the dark cats that are a proof of concept for marking certain tissues with a fluorescent compound that glows. If you can bind the fluorescent marker to cancer cells, you’d have a highly visible “cut here” map, or if you bound it to another gene you wanted to insert, you’d be able to see where the otherwise invisible genes ended up.

Another example is genetically engineered corn that has been infused with a natural pesticide found in a soil bacterium that is lethal to moths but not to other insects or humans. Instead of having to spray on broad spectrum pesticide toxins that aren’t safe for human consumption, contaminate the soil, and work their way into the oceans and the water supply, GE pesticides are made by the plant itself and don’t need to be sprayed on or washed off.

The different strategies that employ genetic engineering need to be considered individually when assessing their potential for benefit versus potential for harm and their accordance with current cultural feelings toward medical and scientific ethics.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.