Discuss the moral and ethical issues associated with recombinant DNA technology

When reading newspaper articles, surfing the Internet and watching the news, there is no escaping the issues we face with new technology and scientific advances. One of the most debated of these issues is genetic engineering and recombinant DNA, and their uses. Many people have different opinions and views on this topic for various reasons, perhaps influenced by their friends or family’s opinions, their occupation, religion, environment, or perhaps the debates they witness in the media. But regardless of this there are clearly many moral and ethical issues that need to be clearly defined and discussed before people can make a fair judgement. This is hopefully what I will achieve when writing this essay.

Firstly I must clearly define what recombinant DNA technology is. It’s the methods and results related with the alteration of the genetic or hereditary material carried by genes of an organism. This can be simplified as below:

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1) Identification of the gene required

2) Isolation of that gene (this occurs using a protein referred to as a ‘restriction enzyme’)

3) Copying of the gene

4) Insertion of the gene into a vector (Another enzyme called ‘DNA ligase’ is used in this process to hold the gene in place)

5) Insertion of the vector into a host cell (Process is known as ‘transformation’)

6) Multiplication of the host cell (Also known as ‘cloning’, this is the controversial topic of genetic engineering. The identical copies of the original cell can be called ‘sister cells’. In this process all of the resulting sister cells are expected to contain an identical copy of the vector carrying the gene)

7) Synthesis of the required product by the host cell

8) Separation of the product from the host cell

9) Purification of the host cell

I will now try to identify the moral and ethical issues people may have with this new technology by first recognising the advantages of recombinant DNA.

Genetic engineering can be used to cure or treat terminal or infectious diseases and disorders by removing the mutated piece of DNA from the defective cell and replacing it with a ‘healthy’ segment of DNA. This has proved to cure people with diseases such as cystic fibrosis and heart disease, and disorders such as Alzheimer’s and arthritis. It has also been successful for diabetics, but through a different method, Diabetics are naturally unable to produce enough insulin, so therefore can suffer from a particularly high or low blood pressure. Before genetic engineering, chemists would use insulin from animals such as cows and pigs. One of the setbacks of this was that it sometimes affected the human immune system. However with recombinant DNA technology the insulin can be produced in larger amounts, in a shorter space of time, and specifically so that humans can tolerate it. This enables us to keep up with ever increasing demand.

This technique has also proved particularly successful in the solving of crimes with the aid of forensic studies. This is when PCR is used to replicate a single strand of DNA to give the forensic scientists more product to experiment with and analyse. They can then use these pieces of replicated DNA to match up samples taken from crime scenes by a process called electrophoresis. Electrophoresis is a technique used to separate molecules of different electrical charge. Under the influence of an electrical field, negatively charged ions (anions) will move towards the anode, whilst positively charged ions (cations) will move towards the cathode. This then produces a pattern of ‘bars’ or proteins, as the smaller the fragment of DNA the further it will move. This then enables us to identify the different proteins and compare with a sample from a suspect, as DNA is unique to each person.

Recombinant DNA technology could also reduce the number of aborted babies, if we could recognise when a baby will suffer from a genetic disorder or disease, remove the defected DNA and replace it, many parents, may continue with the pregnancy rather than opt for a termination.

This particular topic appeared as an article in the Daily Telegraph published on Thursday 8 October 1998. This article focused on an American scientist who proposed to perform experiments on foetuses, which were destined for abortion. The foetuses were discovered to have ‘serious genetic disorders’ and if left to a natural birth would be ‘severely diseased or stillborn’ it is due to these reasons that the mothers opted for terminations. The professor hopes to perform gene therapy on babies whilst they are still in the uterus to cause as little disruption as possible. But to do this he claims he needs to perfect this therapy he needs to practise on foetuses. He would be able to use genetic engineering to workout the genetic code of the baby and identify where the fault is he would then remove the faulty sector and replace it with a fully functioning healthy sector. Unsurprisingly this has unearthed many moral and ethical issues.

Reverend said that ‘We are facing, increasingly, an erosion of the respect for life’ Many others are opposed to the idea that a foetus is undergoing an operation that will not benefit itself and it is unable to give consent. These moral and ethical issues undoubtedly link with religion and it is religions such as the Roman Catholics who are totally opposed to abortion that they are unsurprisingly completely against this process. Other major ethical issues include the impacts this therapy might have on the mother, particularly when it is occurring in her uterus. Emotional suffering is also a huge issue, many people would dismiss this, but it is not surprising if a mother feels guilty having undergone this therapy she might then be aborting a perfectly healthy baby.

Genetic engineering is also used in the treatment of IVF. IVF is a treatment used by couples who are struggling to get pregnant. The basis of IVF is that a batch of the female’s eggs are removed and fertilised outside of the body. Individually each embryo is implanted into the mother’s uterus, until she becomes pregnant. This is where the conflict arises. If the pregnancy occurs before all of the fertilised embryos are used, then the remaining frozen ones will be destroyed. Many people believe that this is the equivalent of murder, as the fertilised embryo is a living person. But others believe that life begins at birth. This then creates more conflicts, because if life does begin when the egg is fertilised, that would lead you to the idea that abortion is legalised murder. Another conflict created by IVF treatment is that couples who separate but have frozen fertilised embryos in storage may want different things. Especially if the female considers it her only opportunity to be a biological mother.

Another huge controversial issue that has appeared in the media over recent years is genetically modified crops. This issue has become so debated that Europe has now banned GM crops, as they are unsure of the potential effects on humans, if any, and the moral issue of tampering with nature frequently arises. GM crops involve engineering crops to enable them to produce industrial chemicals and drugs. An American survey warns that these ‘pharm’ crops could already be poisoning GM free foods. However there are always two sides to an argument and companies such as ‘Monsanto’ have a very optimistic opinion of recombinant DNA technology. Monsanto uses genetic engineering to make GM products. They claim that ‘they use the process as it helps to add nutritional value to their products’.

They also claim it ‘improves the quality of the taste of their products’ and ‘ensures that their products contain less pesticides’. Big multi-national companies such as Monsanto obviously feel that the benefits of this technology outweigh the disadvantages, particularly as it provides their income. Although to be fair, Monsanto does specify on their web site that they use recombinant DNA technology to benefit third world countries, as they claim that the crops grown are ‘large and nutritious’ and are suitable to be grown in the conditions in these third world countries, and therefore help reduce third world starvation.

Before considering these points carefully, I was of the opinion that if this new technology can not only improve the quality of life for so many people and perhaps prolong their life, it can also save the lives of unborn babies that would be born with an abnormality, and give justice to the victims of crimes, and reduce third world starvation then it must be worthy. It is also possible to consider the fact that if we are educated so that we have this knowledge to save lives perhaps ignoring this can technically be classed as neglect. This is where moral and ethical issues start to become apparent.

In today’s society it is almost impossible to avoid the issues surrounding genetic engineering and recombinant DNA, as they are involved in so much of everyday life. But from the above information you can see that recombinant DNA technology has many uses and benefits, although it is also understandable that some people may be of the opinion that these advantages our outweighed by the health risks and moral and ethical issues.

I am of mixed opinion, I feel quite strongly about the fact that if this new technology will save lives then it is worthwhile. I also don’t think it is right to have the knowledge and decide to abolish genetic engineering completely as many people who are suffering in the world have the knowledge that somewhere somebody knows how to cure them. Although I also feel that this amount of technology is unnatural and in some respects is going against the word of god, it is this idea that totally abolishes the concept of natural selection, but god gave us the ability to experiment with genes, so it seems only natural to use this ability. I particularly believe that the line must drawn at genetic engineering when it is specifically for aesthetic reasons, e.g. choosing the colour of your babies hair or eyes.

It is now even possible to choose the sex of your child. This could inevitably lead to the categorisation of people. Although this technology does appear too promising and too effective to cease working completely, as I can see that the huge impacts and benefits it will have on people’s lives are enormous. I also believe that the longer this technology continues the safer it will become, as we will realise the effects and deal with them. As long as we are fully educated on the advantages and disadvantages, then I think it is only fair to leave everyone to form their own conclusion without feeling pressured from any outside influences.

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