Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Genetics: Brave New People

Genetic engineering is perhaps older than most people think. A more fitting label might be "selective breeding." But that term was used when we had a limited understanding of genetic engineering, or in fact little understanding about reproduction (the end result was pretty much a guess in most cases). In fact, humanity has practiced this craft on so many plants and animals that many of these creations would be unable to survive without human assistance. I'm betting a few of them are easy to guess, while others (like most dogs) would seem surprising.

By the 1800s, it was thought that the mystery of "gene plasm" was figured out when peas could be grown to show key reproductive features. Of course, this led to numerous theories, and brought into existence the term "eugenics." Improving humanity was the craze back then. Arguments such as "we are careful about breeding our animals, why not be as careful with humans?" Needless to say, such arguments did not have happy endings.

By the 1900s, the U.S., and many other countries had passed eugenics laws, and scientists were still searching for the secret to making the "perfect" human. By 1930s, many countries, including the U.S. and Germany, were sharing information about national eugenics programs at the 3rd International Eugenics Conference.

A war interrupts the science; however, the U.S. keeps its eugenics laws on the books for several decades afterward (another post in itself). Then DNA is unraveled, the human genome is decoded, and now we are on the RNA project. Food, animals, and drugs are engineered - and even a few cloned critters. The U.S. government fearing a passage from Mary Shelly's novel might suddenly appear on the world stage bans human cloning among other forms of experiments.

And now here we rest, on the precipice of a new science that can improve humanity. Those of you familiar with my writing know this is a common theme in my fiction (and non-fiction). What should the world do? Sure the science is young, even if the practice isn't. But without great risk how can we have great success? And really, what harm can come from a genetically engineered tomato? It's not like they'll bunch-up and attack. But when we review the history of all of this, time and time again it ends in a mess. That makes it seem as though the odds of being right this time are slim.

At the moment, there are many "species" of mice that are genetically engineered - and corporations own their genomes (which means unauthorized reproductions are illegal - don't tell the mice). Some mice are transgenic - they possess the DNA of humans or other animals (yes, we can blend DNA from species to species). Add to that genetically engineered plants that are also patented by corporations; they make a profit by selling the seed, but the plants cannot produce seed. These are high yield plants, but require the re-purchase of seeds from the manufacturer (economics is sneaking into the picture).

It is interesting to speculate upon the first human ventures: genetically improved memory; improved vision; no more male pattern balding; (there's another one that goes here - you can guess it); stronger, faster, bodies and immune systems; higher intellects; designer skin and eyes and hair (remember, we can mix DNA of animals, so why not go for the real leopard skin look). Growing replacement organs is a popular subject. That one can get sticky unless it is done through transgenics (human organs grown in a pig, for instance). Really, the list is only limited by the imagination. Oh, and I suppose the cost. It seems that these procedures might be costly. Hmm, that could present a problem.


John Goodrich said...

Hmmm. Your local medical school has a "Committee on Human Research." Ethics can be an incredibly touchy subject, and because of the Nazi doctors and the human rights abuses of the past (Tuskegee, for an infamous example, and more recently, the lead-rebate study that shut down Johns Hopkins for a day), medical research should tread very carefully.

William Jones said...

John - I think you're very correct. But I wonder what will lead future research: ethics or profit.

Jeff Edwards said...

Fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, I don't know much about it, but I always wondered if the benefits of stem cell research might not outweigh the ethical concerns.

A bit cliche, but this reminds me of the Sting lyric: "Never saw no miracle of science/That didn't go from a blessing to a curse."


Charles Gramlich said...

I've been working on a nonfiction book dealing with Darwin's legacy and talk quite a bit about this in that work. It's actually pretty amazing what humans managed to accomplish with selective breeding before they knew about genetics.