Have you ever wondered what the world would look like if there was no shortage of food? Have you ever wondered what life would be like if we could screen genetic defects before birth? Have you ever wondered how great it would be if a cure for cancer was found? Well, look no further. The answer to these questions lies in one controversial—yet extremely beneficial—sector of science and technology: genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is the process of altering the structure and nature of genes in human beings, animals, or foods using scientific techniques. It is the process of adding or modifying DNA in an organism to bring about a drastic transformation.
A few years ago, genetic engineering was thought to be a real problem—people feared that due to the lack of research, genetically modified organisms are extremely unpredictable and may result in disastrous catastrophes. However, the field of genetic engineering is growing and changing at a tremendous pace. Although there are still a number of very real and troubling concerns surrounding genetic engineering, there are also some great benefits. For instance, genetic engineering could increase the world’s food production and tackle autoimmune disorders and infectious diseases.
With all of these great advantages, there is no doubt that genetic engineering will make a profound and positive impact on society. Therefore, we should be more openminded about the practice and start shifting our attitude towards it. As of today, the practice of genetic engineering is still considered to be unpredictable and possibly harmful. However, these concerns are excessively overblown.
Genetically modified foods, for example, have caused many controversies in the past. Because these foods are considered to be new inventions, not much is known about their long-term effects on human beings. According to Amarinder Bawa, a researcher at the Defence Food Research Laboratory in India, “Health risks associated with genetically modified foods are concerned with toxins, allergens, or genetic hazards” (Bawa). In an experiment conducted by Vanessa E. Prescott and her colleagues for The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Prescott developed genetically modified peas by adding a protein from beans in attempt to make them resistant to pests. This project, however, was quickly shut down when the genetically modified peas caused a lung allergy in mice (Prescott). If a small alteration in a pea’s protein can do such great damage to mice, it is understandable that people might feel apprehensive.
Despite this concern, companies assure that genetically engineered foods are tested for safety—specifically to ensure they do not contain allergens—before being released into the market. Steve Taylor, co-director of the Food Allergy Research Program at the University of Nebraska, explains, “GM foods undergo sequence homology, a process where scientists compare the transgenic proteins’ amino acid sequence with the sequence of known allergens in a database. If the protein shares a predetermined level of similarity with one or more allergens, then it is flagged for further study” (qtd. in Schmidt). It is true that genetically modified foods can contain allergens harmful to the human body, but the research shown above is proof that scientists are enforcing strict regulations to prevent it from being consumed.
Further research and development on the methods of genetic engineering would unquestioningly bring limitless advantages to society, which can even address long standing concerns such as food insecurity and cures for life-threatening diseases. To begin with, genetic engineering plays a major role in agriculture, specifically in increasing food production. With 25% of the world’s children experiencing stunted growth because of food shortage in their area (Gaille), it is important that we have a profound solution in hand for the world’s growing need for food.
A study looking at 20 years of data on genetically modified crops in the United States has found that they not only contain a lower concentration of toxins compared to normal crops, they also increase crop yields. This study, led by Elisa Pellegrino from the Institute of Life Sciences in Italy, analyzed 6,000 peer-reviewed studies from 1996 to 2016 on genetically engineered maize. They concluded that genetically engineered maize produced a greater yield of 5.6% to 24.5% compared to normally grown maize (Pellegrino). In addition, they found that these genetically modified maize crops contained an average of 30% less toxins and carcinogens than non-GM maize.
There were also no significant differences in the crops’ protein, lipid, and fiber quality (Pellegrino). If we have the technology to genetically modify maize and increase its yield, then there’s no doubt that we will be able to do the same with other crops too, which means that we finally have a solution for food shortage in the works. Of course, due to the misconceptions of GM crops, some people might still be afraid to consume them. But with hungry populations, they might not care if the only reliable food source present is genetically engineered; it’s the availability of food that matters.
This increase in crop yield, as well as the favorable traits GM crops bring, will undoubtedly increase the world’s food production and its overall quality, thus bringing advantage to society. Genetic engineering also plays a major role in the medical field. In 2015, immune engineering, a branch of genetic engineering, helped save the life of one-year old Layla Richards dying from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common and aggressive form of childhood blood cancer. According to Antonio Regalado, writer for the MIT Technology Review, doctors used an experimental form of gene therapy using genetically engineered immune cells from a donor as part of the treatment. Like moving books from one shelf to another, these immune cells are transferred from the donor into Layla’s body. Within a month, these cells had killed off all the cancerous cells in her bone marrow, thus restoring Layla’s immune system (Regalado). Inspired by this encouraging medical breakthrough, more and more scientists believe that there are a lot of other diseases they can create cures for, one of them being HIV.
Edward Berger, a virologist at the National Institutes of Health, thinks it may be possible to create a ‘functional cure’ for HIV via immune engineering. According to Berger, although there has been a lot of progress made in treating HIV, a better approach is still needed, specifically “A one-time treatment that can hold the virus in check for good,” he says (qtd. in Regalado).
With immune engineering, Berger’s vision of a more permanent cure is definitely achievable. It would also serve as a great alternative to existing treatment options. Not only will this help save thousands, if not millions, of lives, it will also serve as a huge leap forward in scientific history. From saving the life of a little girl with cancer to developing a possible cure for HIV, the possibilities of genetic engineering in the realm of medicine are endless.
Genetic engineering has the potential to transform our lives in many positive ways; it holds many promises for humanity. It could be the solution to tackle incurable diseases and increase food production. Of course, the genetic modification of crops may bring about harmful allergens, but does that really matter in the eyes of a starving child? Does the means of crop production matter to a mother struggling to feed her family? Yes, genetically modifying plants and humans may sound terrifying at first. But with proper improvements and appropriate regulations, scientists are confident that these methods are completely safe. So just sit back, relax, and embrace the practice of genetic engineering for it will bring nearly limitless advantages to society.