Genetics is one of the most exciting and controversial areas of study for the scientific community. Our knowledge of how DNA works could revolutionise the world in a variety of ways. Helping to combat disease, preventing food shortages and perhaps more insidiously it could lead to a super race, but how? Let’s investigate.
History of genetic engineering
In some form or other, we have been genetic engineering for a very long time. Farmers have always taken part in genetic engineering for decades. By breeding their strongest livestock in order to secure better calves for future generations. While we have practised this for decades it isn’t until we discovered DNA that we really knew what we were doing.
Experiments with DNA
I’m sure you have heard of DNA it stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, a bit of a mouthful, we know! It is effectively the building block for all life on our planet, animal and plant. Much like lego if you put those blocks together in a different way you get a totally different thing. However, if you know how things go together you can alter them to get what you want.
Work began on such projects back in the ’60s with scientists spraying a bunch of plants with radiation trying to generate random mutations in the hope that some of them would be beneficial. Remarkably they occasionally got lucky and got some positive results.
In the seventies we started inserting DNA into Bacteria and made all sorts of discoveries. Through this process, we were able to synthetically create all sorts of products which before needed harvesting from animals, such as insulin.
Of course, as is the case with most scientific breakthroughs this area is not without it its critics. Those who oppose genetic engineering say that is “playing god”
One particularly controversial use of technology comes in the form of it being used to genetically modify crops. Although this has been done for decades via husbandry people tend to not like the idea that their food has been altered on a genetic level. Even though these alterations can be positive. For example making food that doesn’t go off so quickly, or grows to a larger size.
Changing the game
The future of genetics seems far brighter since the advent of a technology called Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats (or crispr) The science behind this technology is a bit complex, but it has cut down the cost of work in this field by 99% and dramatically reduces the times involved with the processes making them more viable than ever.
What does this, men?
The long term ramifications are staggering. In 2016 clinical trials were successful in using the tech to cure cancer. It is hoped with cautious optimism that as our knowledge advances we will be able to use it to eradicate cancer altogether.
It is also thought that the breakthroughs could be used to cure a whole host of conditions that are genetic. Some of which are fatal or life-changing. Scientists believe most of these conditions stem from one isolated piece of genetic code, but we are still some way off being able to correct this.
This is perhaps the most worrying aspect. The technology has already been used to successfully alter embryos. Now obviously being able to protect unborn babies against genetic illnesses is a plus point, but it opens the doors to other potential modifications. Giving them a better metabolism for instance, or making them taller. These genes would then be carried into the next generation and eventually, we could end up creating a “super race” of humans. It is a chilling thought and these are ethical discussions that need to be had.