Monday, December 20, 2010

Part 1: Genetic Engineering - another Frankenstein monster in the making, this time real

Abe V Rotor

Animation today, monsters tomorrow. Genetic engineering is building another Frankenstein monster - this time it is real.

A Genetically Modified Organism (or GMO) is a result of rapid genetic pooling or buildup of desirable traits by means of genetic engineering, rather than through the conventional method.

The conventional agricultural breeding methods are tedious, and subject to uncertainty. Today’s biotechnology opened a frontier whereby the genes of organisms can be transferred and combined according to the traits one wishes to combine. It is actually opening a floodgate of possibilities, spectacularly including cross-species or cross-phyla transfer of genes. This could mean a firefly gene implanted in a rat can make the rodent glow in the dark.

All these have their early beginning with the DNA model proposed by Crick and Watson in the fifties who later shared the Nobel Prize in biology. So precise is the model that with modern tools, all one does is to cut and insert a bit of the genetic material carrying a desired trait. Thus the Bacillus thuringiensis gene into corn produced the Bt corn. Protein gene of one legume to increase the protein nutrients of another. Beta-carotene gene in daffodils into rice resulted into golden rice. (See Figure I )

But what is the extent of modification? What kind and which direction? Would an organism reach a level of modification that it does not only lose its genetic identity but become alien to its adopted environment?

We ask these questions in the light of the following premises:

1. A trait may be controlled by a single gene, but there are more traits that are controlled by multiple and blending genes. Besides, the collective expression of various gene combinations, not to mention the effects of disturbance of the loci of traits in the genes, will take time to be well understood if they inflict any harm or not to human and the environment.

2. Every trait of an organism in one way or the other affects the environment, and vice versa. This means that if the protein is elevated, the higher will be its uptake of nitrogen so that there is need of fertilizer subsidy. Increase in milk output necessary means more feeds, and more antibiotics to protect the animal from milk production stress. There is a saying in ecology that there is no such thing as “free lunch”,

3. Ecologically how will a GMO relate to the natural members of the environment? How will it fit into the ecosystem in which its “parents” were once a part, integrally built by seres and evolution? We may just be interested on how the organism serves our purpose, but not so much as on its usefulness in its own community and the ecosystem as a whole.

4. Genetic engineering will definitely increase the number of plants and animals that now depend entirely on man’s care and attention - and making those presently under cultivation and domestication more and more dependent. Many breeds and varieties can no longer live and prosper in the open. This is indeed an antithesis of natural farming.


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