DNA; the genetic make-up of every living organism
Deoxyribonucleic acid is a power house of every living organism. This molecule carries important characteristics and instructions required for controlling growth, development, mental and physical health, and most importantly hereditary characteristics which are passed on to the next generation. Advancement in technology has resulted in manipulation of this special molecule with the aim of improving the quality of life, a concept called genetic engineering.
What is genetic engineering?
GE refers to an intended modification of an organism ‘s phenotype through manipulation of their genetic make-up i.e. by altering their DNA Since an organism‘s phenotype (behavioral or physical or functional characteristics) is dictated or controlled by expression of specific genes within the DNA, changing the gene sequence or DNA through introduction of mutations such as insertion of foreign DNA, deletion of certain bases, substitution of certain bases within the DNA result in different amino acids being encoded. Thus changing the final protein product encoded by amino acids.
The latter results in changed function, hence a genetically engineered organism or product.
Benefits of GE are as follows:
Although often criticized and not accepted by society due to ethical and religious reasons, GE has a broad range of applications necessary to sustain life and thus should be pursued in our society. Some of the very important benefits of GE are as follows:
• maintaining food security through modification of livestock to breed more, increased milk production, genetically modifying plants to improve fruit and vegetable yields,
The drastic increase in population threatens food security since more people occupy more land and use more water leaving the food producers(FARMERS) with increased competition or limited availability of land and water necessary to grow crops for food production(Tilman, 2001). As a result thereof, crop yields become low and food prices become outrageously expensive. In addition, effects of climate change such as droughts, floods threaten crop yields further contributing to food scarcity. So the use of GE to genetically modify plants to increase yields could reduce hunger and thus sustain food security. Most people globally suffer from nutritional deficiencies as a result of inadequate intake of micronutrients, so GE technology can also help eliminate such nutritional problems by breeding crops with increased micronutrients (Paine J.A et al,2005). Although the production of food using GE is highly controversial in our society due to potential health risks, relevant strategies could be employed to ensure safety prior distribution or commercialization of GE food. This further emphasizes the need to ensure GE is pursued in our society.
• Improving the quality of life by advancing prevention and treatment of communicable and non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, TB, Malaria.
With the increasing population, health facilities are highly under pressure to accommodate and supply effective services to the society. This is a problem as many of these health facilities in a country such as South Africa are not well equipped nor have enough skilled personnel to manage a variety of health conditions. These limitations require technology intervention such as genetic engineering to improve the quality of life. For instance, genetic engineering has been used to synthesize the human insulin through genetic modification of bacteria (Lomedico, 1982). Insulin is a hormone produced by the human body to control blood glucose levels through metabolism of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins (Insulin Administration, 2003). People with type1 diabetes produce insufficient amounts of insulin, so administration of synthetic insulin produced through genetic engineering improves the hormone dosage and blood glucose levels, 5thus effectively managing diabetes. GE also provides the platform to remove and replace malfunctioning genes from the DNA as a therapeutic approach known as gene therapy. This therapy has been successfully applied to treat X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (X-linked SCID), an immune disease caused by inadequate production of protective immune cells such as T cells and Natural killer cells (Gene therapy of human severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID)-X1 disease(Cavazzana-Calvo et al,2000). Vaccines and diagnostic tests are also developed using GE, thus further enhancing the efficiency of managing or controlling disease. These benefits indicate the need to ensure that GE is pursued in the society, the world of medicine would not be a better place without this technology.
• Facilitating sustainable fuel production, improving waste and pest management.
The use of pesticides in farms to protect crops from insect invasion has been a highly recommended pest control strategy. However, most of these pesticides are toxic chemicals with harmful direct and indirect side effects to human beings;
Pesticides result in estimated 26 million human poisonings and 220,000 fatalities, annually worldwide (Paoletti and Pimentel, 2000).
Thus, genetically modifying crops to acquire resistance to pests by inserting genes that produce resistance products like Bacillus thuringiensis toxin in corn could reduce the need for pesticides and ultimately the food poisoning from pesticide treated crops. GE in this instance helps introduce disease resistant plants. Biofuels such as biodiesel, bioethanol are potential low carbon energy sources which are produced sustainably from waste i.e. biomass using genetically engineered bacteria or enzymes (Ullah M.W, 2015).
This alternative of fuel production is way better than the use of fossil fuels which are associated with carbon dioxide emissions and major contributors of climate change. GE has also been employed in mines for bioremediation i.e. use of micro-organisms to remove toxic wastes, a good example of such a micro –organism is a bacterium called Deionococcus radiodurans which has been genetically modified to consume large amounts of radioactive waste such as mercury and toluene released from mines and nuclear power plants (Brim, H., 2000). Therefore, as a society we need GE to keep the environment free from pollution.
In conclusion I think there is so much GE could do in our societies, but ultimately comes to an extent of how we were brought up. My morals still determine how the outside world is perceived, for instance the growing population worldwide could benefit from GE. But if creating a human being comes into the picture; this threatens beliefs, and is perceived to be tempering with God’s creation and nature. All the benefits above show that GE can be helpful thus it is essential to keep the genetic engineers on their toes and making sure that they have ethical principles to follow.
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