New hope or future
Never in the history of the human race has science given us
so much power to alter our destiny. The genetic revolution allows us to
create life and food to our own design and even to alter the nature of human
beings. Gene technology can cure disease and help feed the world and is
accelerating faster than most people understand.
In the last two years
alone over a million mutant animals have been artificially created in
British laboratories alone, each of which is a strange mix of the genes of
two or more different species. Sheep with human
genes, fish with mouse and human genes, pig with sheep genes and so the list
goes on. It all works relatively easily because all life uses exactly the
same "computer language" in it's cells. So genes from one species function
Sometimes the results
are obvious and hugely beneficial. For example in the early 1980s,
scientists found the gene for human insulin, and inserted it into common
bacteria, which learned how to make it. Brewing human insulin is in a way as
simple as brewing beer. Just add water and food and these bugs will go on
producing perfect human insulin forever. The result is good news for people
with diabetes. A huge industrial complex costing 10 billion dollars has been
shrunk to the size of a single cell.However such success stories so far have
been rare, and most are just bizarre. Take for example the goat and spider
mix - which created a goat
that makes spider web in its milk. If you collect the web and spin it you
can perhaps create a new material for surgeons to use in sewing up wounds.
Often there are also issues of safety as in the case of a new cabbage
created by adding scorpion poison genes. The cabbages kill caterpillars but
what about the people? Nobody knows because no company dares to do the
Then there is the global
race to produce the world's first human clone. The human cloning debate is
at the heart of the reaction in many countries against gene technology.
Expect to see the first human cloned baby in the next three years. If you
don't see it, assume the reason is that it has been born, as with so many
cloned animals, with such gross malformations that the creators fear to talk
A secret human cloning
laboratory run by clonaid is said to be based in the Nevada desert, with the
first human cloned baby expected by them to be born in 2001 with the first
embryo transfers very soon. The plan is that the human cloning experiment
will produce a replacement copy of a 10-month-old girl who died last year.
Clonaid says five British couples; including two pairs of homosexual men
have asked to be cloned. The technique is becoming routine in animals: take
an egg and remove the genes. Place an adult skin cell next to it and fire a
spark of electricity. The two become one and the egg starts to divide,
developing into the adult's identical twin. Clonaid is registered in the
Bahamas and was founded by the Raelian movement who claim more than 50,000
members in 85 countries. They believe that humans are all cloned from alien
scientists who visited earth. More than 50 surrogate mothers have been
selected to carry the human cloned foetuses
throughout pregnancy. America has no laws preventing human cloning research,
although no public funding is available. The work continues despite huge
concerns in most countries of the world.
Human cloning is often
justified as a (very) expensive treatment for infertility, but has huge
risks. In addition to the danger of malformation and other defects there are
great emotional hazards. A daughter grows up and
one day looks at her mother and realises she is actually looking at her twin
sister, that her "father" is really her brother in law and that her
"grandparents" are her biological parents. What does that do to a child.
People tell me they want to replace a dead child - but what does it do to
the new twin, knowing in later life that he or she was only created as a
replacement, not because valued in his or her own right?
Other scientists want to
make the clones but not implant them, using them as experimental material to
get embryonic stem cells These cells can be triggered to develop into tissue
such as nerve or heart cells but cannot be used to develop whole organs. To
do that you would need to clone a whole human being and then cull it for
spares - a horrific thought - but one already being pursued in cases where,
say, bone marrow is removed after birth, allowing the donor to carry on
New research shows that
stem cells from adults also have the potential to grow a wide variety of
replacement tissues so the argument that we need to allow cloning for
so-called therapeutic purposes is already becoming out of date. Then there
is the urgent issue of genetically modified food. Here companies have
created crops which are immune to their own poisons. Farmers then have to
buy not only the seed each year (many of these crops do not breed true) but
also the weed killer. A powerful business model but what does it do for
the environment? These weed killers can wipe out every other life form
across large areas, killing not only every wild flower but also the insect
population that depends on them. Next to go are the birds and small mammals
that depend on this food chain for food.
GM crops themselves can
be toxic to wild-life - which is hardly surprising since some are created to
grow their own fungicides or insecticides in the sap of the plant. They are
billed as the ultimate green crops since no artificial sprays are needed.
The reality however can be different. The Monarch butterfly is a splendid
insect, and a state emblem for Texas, but has been shown to be killed by
pollen from GM Maize according to a recent study published in Nature.
Pollen from GM crops is
blown by the wind or carried by creatures from one field to another so these
new genes can spread in a way impossible to control fully. In parts of the
US and Britain it is already becoming
difficult for "organic" farmers to ensure their own crops are
uncontaminated. Genetic spread cannot be undone. What would happen if GM
salmon were accidentally released into the sea - made with human and mouse
genes and growing to four times normal size in a year? How can you contain
such an event? How can you sure it will not affect the balance of life in
the oceans in fifty years time?
Matters have been made
far worse for those worried about GM grain risks because American farmers
and grain merchants have deliberately mixed GM crops and natural crops in
the same silos. After recent GM food scares in Britain many food
manufacturers wanted to boycott GM grain but found the mixing created big
problems. Food manufacturers will certainly have some interesting new
products to sell: perhaps a banana that contains a low dose anti-malarial,
or a tomato with enriched vitamins.
Seed producers have
tried to justify the creation of new crops by telling us that they will
solve the world food shortage. They promise crops able to resist pests and
drought, and able to survive in salinated soils damaged by over-irrigation.
But we must remember they are speaking as businesses. They did not help
their cause by inserting "terminator" genes into the first generation of
crops. That meant that low-income farmers would have had to go back every
year to buy more grain because their harvest was sterile. The greatest steps
forward in medicine over the next decade are likely to come from genetics.
As we continue to match genes with disease patterns we will be able to make
ever more accurate forecasts about an individual's health, which will allow
prevention and earlier diagnosis. In practice it may also encourage yet more
parents to abort a foetus because they are worried about its genes. This has
started already with sex selection, and also with some diseases but where
will it stop? Parents in future may be able to look for genes, which are
linked with the chance of higher than normal intelligence, aborting all who
don't have them.
Gene technology will
allow "magic bullets" to hunt and destroy cancer cells by detecting bad
genes. It will allow correction within five to ten years of gene defects
such as cystic fibrosis, where an inhaled spray will be used to re-programme
the lining of the lung. Gene technology will also be used to produce new
generations of complex drugs at low cost, as well as vaccines for diseases
like malaria, and perhaps one day an effective treatment or vaccine for
AIDS, perhaps the greatest medium term health threat to India's future.
There is no doubt that
the genetic revolution will present us with the greatest moral questions in
human history. Take the humanised monkey: how many human genes does a monkey
have to have to win human rights? Since monkeys differ only 3% in their
genes the answer is that if the right 1.6% of human genes are added, it is
likely the courts would recognise that the creature was more human than
animal. Thus gene technology strikes to the very heart of our humanity,
raising not only philosophical and moral questions but also spiritual ones.
Is it right to add human genes to a cow? How many?
In conclusion, we
urgently need gene technology - to fight disease and feed the world, but we
do need to proceed carefully, and to ask what kind of world we want to live
in, now we have the ability to change the very basis of life itself.
Australian National University
Institute of Bioscience and Technology
Department of Biotechnology (Genetic Engineering)