I am a Christian. I believe in the God of the Bible, in God the Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. I believe in Genesis 1:1 - "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (NIV)" I am a biochemist and a pharmacist by education. As such I have a desire to understand nature. I am writing this blog as my way to express the facts of true science as I understand them, from the perspective of one who believes that all things were created by God, for God and for His purposes.

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Genetic Engineering - Un-Natural Selection?

In California we had a measure on the ballot on November 6th, Proposition 37. If it had passed, it would have required labels on certain foods when they contain "Genetically Engineered" ingredients. It sounds kind of like science fiction doesn't it? The term Genetically Engineered brings up thoughts of mutant plants and Evolution on Steroids!

But what exactly is a Genetically Engineered food anyway?

In one sense, all food is genetically engineered since all living things contain genes that direct their growth and characteristics. In the natural world God is the one who does the engineering. But man has also gotten into the act. For centuries man has been genetically engineering his food, although possibly without really knowing it. As man began to cultivate plants for food, cross pollination and mutations would form larger or hardier crops and by selectively using the improved varieties, man was, in a very broad sense, genetically engineering. Later as we understood the science better, deliberate cross breeding of plants and animals resulted in increased crop yields, larger feed animals and more milk production.

Scientifically this is referred to as "artificial selection" to distinguish it from "natural selection" where the cross breeding leads to traits that increase survival - the mainstay of evolution. In both of these examples the genetic changes occur naturally, within the organism, without direct manipulation of its genetic material.

Genetic Engineering (GE) is a process in which scientists use recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology to introduce desirable traits into an organism. Done in the laboratory, GE alters the organism's genetic makeup by either removing genetic material from that organism or introducing externally prepared DNA into the organism. Genetic manipulation in this fashion can be used to produce the same changes that could be attained by artificial selection, only much faster. This process, called Cisgenesis, introduces genes in one generation that would take multiple generations to introduce through artificial selection. Thus it just speeds up an already "natural", albeit forced, mutation.
Selective breeding transformed teosinte's few fruitcases (left)
into modern corn's rows of
exposed kernels (right).

There is a second type of GE and that is where the going gets tougher. This type is called Transgenesis. Transgenesis introduces foreign genes into the genome and thus can not occur by any natural process. Typically, genetically modified foods are transgenic plant products - soybean, corn, canola and rice. The aim is to introduce a new, beneficial trait into the plant. Since the new material is not naturally available in the species' gene pool, the potential for moral, ethical and safety concerns is much greater.

We have to weigh the benefits and the risks, both to us and to our environment, both in a physical sense as well as morally and ethically. But we should not ban something just because it seems like science fiction. Should we ban cars because they kill people? Deconstruct the Internet because it contains porn? Stop all animal experiments as some may die? No, but we need to be sure we treat all living things with dignity and respect, with human life given the highest consideration. Thus, in my mind, human cloning or stem cell research is absolutely off the table when it results in the taking of a human life, even an embryo, but it is reasonable and desirable to develop adult stem cells or tissue cloning for the purposes of improving our individual and corporate health.

Looking back over the history of chemistry we see that human manipulation of natural chemicals has resulted in numerous products that have improved life as we know it. In ancient times, man combined different elements together, often unintentionally, to make compounds that had superior qualities - copper and tin to make bronze, or copper and zinc to make brass.

Later man isolated compounds from plants and used them as medicines, such as Caffeine or Aspirin. Other compounds were chemically altered (engineered?) to make more powerful drugs. Now man is going one step further - using Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to produce even more complex drugs, with more opportunities to improve the human condition.

Genetic Engineering has Opened Up
Many New Possibilities
For Advances in Drug Therapy

In medicine genetic engineering has been used to mass-produce insulin, human growth hormones, human albumin, monoclonal antibodies, antihemophilic factors, vaccines and many other drugs. Genetically modified mice have been used to study and model cancer (the oncomouse), obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, substance abuse, anxiety, aging and Parkinson disease. Potential cures can be tested against these mouse models.

Gene therapy is the genetic engineering of humans by replacing defective human genes with functional copies. It has been used to treat patients suffering from immune deficiencies and trials have been carried out on other genetic disorders. There are ethical concerns should the technology be used not just for treatment, but for enhancement, modification or alteration of a human being's appearance, adaptability, intelligence, character or behavior. Some consider the enhancement of humans a desirable potential outcome of gene therapy.

But is this manipulating God's plan?

We must address the safety, ethical and moral concerns that come with these benefits. What are the human health implications of eating genetically modified food, in particular will toxic or allergic reactions occur? Can genes flow into related non-transgenic crops, causing off target effects on beneficial organisms and have a negative impact on biodiversity? Moral and ethical concerns raised involve religious beliefs, corporate control of the food supply, intellectual property rights and the level of labeling needed on genetically modified products.

As you can see there is much work to be done before Genetically Engineered Foods and Organisms will be widely accepted as part of our everyday lives, even in spite of the fact that many of our everyday foods already are directly or indirectly produced through some form of genetic engineering. We must evaluate the risks against the opportunity to improve the human condition. I think God has given us that right and it is up to us to handle it responsibly.

Deuteronomy 29:29 (NIV) - The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

Genesis 1:28-29 (NIV) - God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." 29Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.