Seldom a week goes by without the discovery of a gene for yet another disease. Genetic explanations are touted for everything from cancer and heart disease to more diffuse conditions like alcoholism, homosexuality, and crime. It's been suggested that there may even be a gene for shyness! Biologists believe that new gene technology will revolutionize our understanding of disease and will have a greater impact on us than nuclear power or the computer.
In 50 years, some predict, it will be possible to learn how and when we are likely to die and what precautions we should take to avoid death as long as possible. One of the leading researchers compares genetic engineering to the American and French Revolu tions or the birth of liberty. All the old ideas are being thrown overboard.
Genetic engineering has changed the pathway of biology more than any other single scientific event of the 20th century. Now, at what seems the unending of the biological revolution, scientific journals are full of startling ideas. Genes are being used to change the taste of tomatoes and to pin down murderers and rapists.
Scientists around the world are making a concerted effort to identify all the human genes, and they have begun a primitive map of where those genes are in relationship to each other, trying to solidify the whole genetic picture.1
In addition to human genetics, gene transplants have doubled the life of experimental worms and have made soy bean plants resistant to parasitic rust. Some genes can now be easily identified at low cost and with simple instruments, causing Nobel laureate Joshua Lenderberg to state:
"High school students do (gene) experiments today that would have been doctoral dissertations fifteen years ago."
When researchers discussed the possibility of duplicating human embryos, many voiced concerns that technology had gone too far.
When it finally happened--after years of ethical hand wringing and science fiction fantasy--it was accomplished in such a low-key manner that the world nearly missed it.
The landmark meeting was reported at the American Fertility Society in Montreal during the latter part of 1993. Dr. Robert Stillman, the principal researcher,indicated in his experiment that he started with 17 microscopic embryos and multiplied them into 48.
But this was an experiment different from anything that had preceded it. The manipulated cells came not from plants or worms, or even rabbits or cows, but from human beings.
A spokesman for the Japan Medical Association found the experiment "unthinkable." French President Francois Mitterand pronounced himself "horrified." The Vatican warned in a front-page editorial that such procedures would lead humanity down a "tunnel of madness."
The line had been crossed. A taboo broken. A Brave New World of cookie cutter humans, baked and bred to order, seemed just around the corner. Ethnicists called up nightmare visions of baby farming, of clones cannibalized for spare parts. Policy makers pointed to the vacuum in U.S. bioethical leadership.
Our Foods Are Affected
Scientists have been talking about producing better foods through genetic engineering ever since the technology first became available. By mixing and matching bits of genes from one kind of organism and pasting it into another, they hoped to make new, improved plants and animals.
Over the years they've put corn genes in rice, trout genes in cat fish, chicken genes in potatoes, even fireflies into tobacco (yielding a plant that actually glowed in the dark).
A few years ago, researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture tried to produce leaner pork by splicing a human gene into a pig embryo. What they got was a cross-eyed porker with crippling arthritis and a strangely wrinkled face! Many may also be aware of the new genetically altered tomato, the first genetically altered food endorsed by the FDA.
The gene splicers have shown no shortage of imagination. Products in the pipeline include chick ens that grow faster on less feed, snap peas that stay sweeter longer, bell peppers with fewer seeds and a longer shelf life, and coffee beans that have less caffeine.
Among the more grotesque results in the attempts to unlock the DNA's digital code, scientists have succeeded in growing flies with large, perfectly formed eyes on the most inapropriate parts of their bodies: on their wings, on their legs, and on the quivering tips of their antennae.2 Some of the flies have as many as 14 eyes apiece. "This is Frankensteinian science at its best," one scientist noted.
If all this isn't fantastic enough to stimulate some level of general interest, consider the research currently underway at New York University, where DNA molecules are considered potential building blocks for constructing organic "logic units" in developing DNA computers. In this instance, molecular "chunklets" are being formed into cubes, octahedrons, and other geometric forms for this very purpose.
During a recent exhaustive study of such genetic engineering technology, the staff of Discover magazine noted:
"There are Frankensteins among us, researchers who are actually figuring out how to build living things...They are not simply toying with autonomous computer programs that mimic the lives of living creatures. Instead, these latterday creators are trying to build honest-to-god [sic] protoplasm from organic chemicals, molecule by molecule, cell by cell."
In support of their findings, the Discover staff cited their visit to Japan, where Masuo Aizawa is growing colonies of nerve cells, attempting to design a living brain.
Your Privacy Invaded
In the escalating skirmish between privacy and genetic technology, the banking of genes is viewed as a potential Armageddon, the giant mushroom cloud looming over the horizon. The current data banking can generate "genetic fingerprinting," an identification that has not yet reached the population at large. Many states now keep the blood of convicted felons in order to match their DNA with that found at crime scenes, and the Department of Defense is planning to take samples from active duty personnel to be used primarily for the identification of soldiers mutilated in battle.
But the banking of genetic data, perhaps reduced to bar codes and easily shared among networked computers, will almost assuredly touch everyone. It can readily be acknowledged that a "Mark of The Beast" technology is available for implementation.
Questions To Ponder
With all the prospects of genetic tinkering, here are a few questions to ponder:
- Would you want your employer or insurance company to know the genes you are carrying? Could a future of increased genetic knowledge mean employers and insurance companies will require you to present your genetic profile along with your application form?
- Should companies be allowed to own parts of our own genetic code? The advance of genetic engineering raises many issues in the area of intellectual property rights--would you want someone to own the patent for your genetic information?
- Should genetic science be used to breed "perfect" human fetuses? The eugenics movement, which originated in 19th century England, was aimed at improving the hereditary qualities of the population by keeping the birth rate of the unfit in check and encouraging the reproduction of the fit. Eugenics was effectively stopped by the Nazi's grotesque abuse of this false science.
Currently, China has gone a step further with a law on eugenics. This proposes that people with a medical history of undesirable genetic traits should be forbidden to marry.
As we observe society's steady march toward the prophetic scenario detailed in the Bible, we can't help but ponder the strange passages, such as Revelation Chapter 9, which now somehow seem less bizarre than before.
As mankind continues to "tamper with the engines of creation," it becomes more imperative than ever to deepen our study of God's Word to prepare for the times ahead. He is in control and we are indeed living in exciting times.