A scientific revolution is in progress that promises to alter all prior rules on how humankind interacts with the biotic world. Through the laboratory wizardry of genetic engineering, researchers have gained the ability to identify and characterize genes for nearly any biological function, modify these genes and insert them into living cells, swap genetic material freely among species, and even generate perfect genetic copies (clones) of whole plants and animals. By routinely engineering the genetic blueprints of living organisms, scientists today have capabilities far exceeding those of either Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Doolittle of earlier fiction. Might some real-life GMOs (genetically modified organisms) of the modern era become uncontrollable monsters that turn against their makers, as did the stiff-legged brute of Dr. Frankenstein's creation? Or will they remain our obedient companions, faithfully carrying out their human-assigned roles, as did the pleasant and talkative animal friends of Dr. Doolittle?
This book provides scores of examples of how GMOs with novel and often bizarre genetic capabilities are being generated in the laboratory and sometimes unleashed into the wild. Through case-by-case descriptions of these creatures and the research programs that created them, I hope to inform a wide audience about the activities of modern-day genetic engineers and about how their biological sorceries can affect human lives and the ecology of the planet. My intended readership includes professional biologists, but even more so an interested public and university students in the humanities as well as the sciences. In particular, I hope this book will help stimulate critical thought and discussion in relevant college courses addressing some of the most consequential societal issues of our times.
Research articles on genetic engineering abound in scientific journals and industry documents, but these can be technically difficult. Popular accounts in the news media usually are oversimplified or sensationalized. Here I seek an intelligent yet entertaining middle ground. Using simple and evocative language, but without sacrificing scientific rigor, I hope to bring genetically modified microbes, plants, and animals to life and fairly articulate the hopes and fears they raise in us all. This primer on genetic engineering assumes of the reader only an elementary knowledge of cellular biology and genetics— adequate background information is provided in chapter 2, within the relevant case studies in subsequent chapters, and in a glossary. Also included is an appendix with more extended descriptions of laboratory techniques commonly employed in genetic engineering. Readers interested in methodological details might wish to read this appendix before proceeding to the primary essays in earlier chapters.
My primary goals in this work are to inform, delight, provoke, and intellectually engage the reader in the amazing alchemies of new-age genetic manipulation. The book is organized into a collection of short compositions, each highlighting an ongoing or contemplated effort by genetic engineers to reshape life. In vignettes centered on five major topical areas—microbes, crops, barnyard animals, nondomestic organisms, and humans—I show how genetic engineers are occupied in widely diverse activities such as altering the hereditary makeup of bacteria to produce proteins of medicinal and industrial value; developing crops with genetic resistance to herbivorous insects and chemical herbicides; making perfect genetic copies of prized farm animals; sterilizing unwanted animal pests; contriving plants with a genetic ability to decontaminate toxic waste sites; coaxing embryonic stem cells to rejuvenate worn-out adult tissues; and even cloning human beings.
Emotional responses to the production of GMOs run the full gamut. Even as many biotechnologists, economists, and industry leaders express great optimism for a better planet through genetic engineering, fear reigns in other circles about possible risks to human health, food supplies, and the environment. Closer to the middle of the spectrum, reflective hopes and concerns are expressed by professional biologists as well as by laypeople with a wide assortment of religious and philosophical outlooks.
Thus, another of my goals is to attempt case-by-case appraisals of genetic engineering from several different perspectives. By nearly any standard, the potential benefits to be derived from genetic engineering range from the trivial to the momentous, as do the hazards. Furthermore, the risks and rewards do not always vary in parallel. Some bioengineering agendas are small gambles with huge potential payoffs for society, others are just the reverse, and most fall somewhere in between. To condemn or praise genetic engineering as a single monolithic enterprise is inadequate.
Even when the ultimate goal of a genetic engineering project is beyond reproach, financial gain and/or scientific prestige are the usual proximate forces that drive the enterprise. Unfortunately, money and personal egos can make uncomfortable bedfellows for otherwise well-intentioned science, sometimes biasing the contents even of leading scientific journals. Thus, especially in lucrative high-stake arenas such as biotechnology, all "scientific opinions" should be accompanied by forthright disclosure statements. Here's mine:
Apart from owning a few miscellaneous stock shares, I have no vested financial interests either in, or in opposition to, the biotechnology industry. I have no close social or professional connections to advocates or opponents of genetic engineering, nor within that discipline do I enjoy a high scientific standing to protect. Instead, I hold an academic appointment in the field of evolutionary genetics. The research conducted in my university laboratory, across three decades, has employed many of the molecular tools of genetic engineering, but for quite different purposes: to describe ecological and evolutionary processes, rather than to alter life. I have no personal desire to modify genes, nor any blanket ethical objection to the efforts of those who strive to do so.
Thus, I am a scientific outsider peering into the genetic engineering industry, but I hope to turn this naivete to an advantage. I hope to bring to the table a genetically informed but relatively detached and objective perspective on the promises and pitfalls of GMOs. My motivations have been a desire to learn more about the topic and a wish to share this knowledge openly with a broad audience. The original Dr. Frankenstein worked in secret, hiding from the torch-carrying mobs who were suspicious of the late-night activities in his laboratory. This book will provide a more civilized way to illuminate the labors and the biological inventions of today's real-life genetic engineers.
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