Oxford Languages uses the following definition for genetic engineering:
“The deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material.”
Testing for Traits Unrelated to Disease
Most genetic engineering research on humans comes from identifying and eliminating diseases. Human gene engineering has proven invaluable at finding diseases in at-risk individuals or carriers before any of them are symptomatic or transmissive.
There are concerns, however, like if that testing is helpful if the disease cannot be cured. Would you rather know you’ll develop an incurable condition in later life or live in blissful ignorance of that fact for most of your life? The answer seems too personal to be explained through a scientific study, as people have reported both yes and no when asked.
By identifying these diseases at a genetic level, we opened a can of worms since we could now identify non-disease genes.
Tests are now possible for eye color, which hand will be dominant, the potential for addictions, and athleticism. Knowing of these traits may be harmful to somebody who doesn’t conform to them if they’ve had these tests run.
People tend to want to attribute their accomplishments to themselves and their decisions over predetermined genetic information, after all.
From these revelations come two other controversial uses of human genetic engineering…
Building Better Athletes with Gene Doping
For as long as there have been athletes, there have been performance enhancers that athletes have used to get ahead of the game. Genetic engineering may have a part to play here, too.
The World Anti-Doping Agency tries to police doping in the world’s largest sporting events but they have a new issue that doesn’t have a clear solution.
So-called gene doping is where athletic performance is improved through gene therapy.
This is usually used to transfer healthy genes to a sick person to aid in recovery or tame an immunological condition but, through gene doping, athletes can maximize hormone and protein production in a way that can’t easily be tested for.
This possibility has been known for years. In the 1990s, a batch of mice was awarded muscle mass through gene therapy and became known as the “Schwarzenegger Mice.”
What isn’t known is whether gene doping can have more harmful consequences.
Tinkering with genes, especially those dictating hormone and protein production regarding athletic performance, could have devastating consequences in the long term for those athletes.
There’s also the ethical question and whether this should be considered the same as drug doping at all, or whether it’s something to embrace and explore for other applications.
Creating Designer Babies
You’ve likely heard the term designer babies before. If not, this is where genetic testing and altering are used to promote certain human traits over others before the full development and birth of the child. If that sounds like eugenics to you, that’s because it is.
Existing in the field of eugenics doesn’t make the practice abhorrent in itself, of course. While atrocities like forced sterilization have been performed in the name of eugenics, it’s a field that we will inevitably have to engage with when discussing the genetic engineering of human beings.
Some reject designer babies on this principle, as is their right, but the fear of designer babies is more focused on what the next logical steps are.
Gene testing is used to eliminate specific, severe diseases from embryos before they can manifest. Most agree that this is a good and valid use of genetic engineering, the fear is that it will then get used on non-disease traits, hence the term designer babies.
There’s a far cry between eliminating life-threatening diseases from an embryo and tweaking with one so that they have blonde hair instead of brown hair. It’s a sensationalized issue but still one that should be acknowledged when discussing human gene engineering.
There’s also the added risk of causing unforeseen issues in the child as a result.
Like with crops, one gene change could have a chain reaction effect and change the organism in ways that we simply cannot predict.
This is the cutting edge of genetic engineering research, so there haven’t been enough test subjects or years passed since those tests to ensure that it’s a safe procedure.
There’s also the ethical concern about liberty. While a hands-off approach to a child’s biological circumstance is ethically sound, the decision made by an adult to alter the child is something that the child cannot consent to. A child would likely consent to a life-saving edit if they could but other changes would be done without that child’s permission.
Designer babies, as a term, also highlight how such breakthrough tech is affordable only by the elite.
The average person won’t be able to create their ideal child and this can exaggerate class issues and create a class of people who have been altered to ensure they have higher potential for physical attractiveness or intellectual aptitude over unedited people. This has been referred to as the genetic aristocracy. Novels like Brave New World and movies like Gattaca and are often brought up to evidence how such genetic engineering is a step towards a dystopia.
Naturally, all of these thoughts are hypothetical as of now.
The invention of CRISPR technology has brought us closer to this reality than ever before but even then, it may still prove too complex, and so impossible, to alter one non-diseased human gene to any appreciable effect.
Human Health Risk
There are also human health risks to be associated with genetic engineering.
The most prevalent and likely today would be from genetically engineered crops which then, after entering our systems, cause an adverse reaction in our biology.
Crop biotechnology may contain a higher quantity of or altered allergens that can harm people and animals. While this has proven to be an issue for animals, the widespread consensus is that genetically engineered crops are safe for consumption and that selective breeding can result in the same negative effects.
In fact, this was an issue that was settled quite some time ago and we haven’t seen any issues since. Many of the largest organizations have cleared GMOs of health risks. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep the possibility of health risks in mind, however, as the scientific process remains open to new evidence.
As for the report cited above, they found that engineered crops had the same health risks as organic crops, failing to establish a causal relationship between gene engineering and any adverse reactions or environmental issues. After over two decades of consuming genetically engineered crops, we have yet to see an increase in adverse reactions.
Any new traits found in edible plant biotechnology are examined by the FDA before hitting any market. There they can rule out allergic responses and other toxic effects from the new proteins responsible for those traits.
Genetically engineered food can also harm humans by disrupting the food chain. For example, pest-resistant biotech crops could disrupt or harm worms, bees, or fish.
All three of these perform important environmental functions that could have long-term consequences for human beings. Bees alone are incredibly important to the world’s crops.
Source: Lucy Olivarez – My Bio Source