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Dhaka Tribune

Genetic engineering: A cure or curse?

What does the future hold for this revolutionary tool?

Update : 21 Oct 2022, 12:58 AM

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been passionately “engineering” the life around them, be it selectively planting seeds from plants that gave the larger tomato or throwing a few extra scraps at the wolf that seemed a bit more “loyal.” 

We were convinced that we had mastered this process until the structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) was unveiled in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick. This discovery, of course, opened the doors to a realm of limitless possibilities. 

The bright side

In the 1960s, American scientists exposed plants to vast amounts of gamma radiation in hopes that the random mutation would generate beneficial traits (and it occasionally worked!). The 70s saw the discovery of the very first synthetic insulin, and by the 80s, the world had seen its very first genetically-modified plant -- an antibiotic-resistant tobacco variant.

In the 21st century, genetic engineering continues to be commonplace, ranging from something as trivial as fluorescent zebrafish to something as significant as fast-growing transgenic salmon. 

Debates regarding the ramifications of gene editing have always been prevalent. With the breakthrough known as CRISPR-Cas 9 in 2012, a gene-editing tool, the topic is back on the table. After all, what we decide today will determine the course of human civilization over the centuries to come.

What makes Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats or CRISPR so revolutionary is not just the fact that it is affordable and saves time, but is also accessible. A single laboratory is sufficient to conduct experiments of colossal significance. 

In modern times, growth hormones, essential clotting factors, and even insulin are produced synthetically, thanks to genetic engineering. Gone are the days when we had to consider the unethical option of extracting them from animal organs. 

Storing crops has become easier than ever, modified to suppress rotting enzymes and increase their shelf life. Bt crops can now produce a protein that destroys the digestive systems of pest insects while not harming humans. With weedicide-resistant crops, farmers can safely dispose of other weeds competing for similar resources while the crop plants are unaffected. 

Brinjal, an essential crop in Bangladesh, previously faced the threat of entire fields being wiped out by pests. Heavy reliance on pesticides incurred high financial costs for farmers and frequently risked their health. 

Enter Bt brinjal, Bangladesh's first-ever genetically modified crop. Approved in 2013, it produced a form of protein that was detrimental to insects but harmless to humans. Subsequently, farmers' health and income increased dramatically. 

Hawaiian papaya is another story of the success of GMOs. During the 1990s, the Hawaiian papaya was on the brink of extinction due to the Ringspot virus. Thankfully, Dennis Gonsalves, a Hawaiian-born scientist at Cornell University, came to the rescue a virus-resistant variant of the original papaya.

But there is so much more that genetic engineering promises to achieve. 

In 2016, a research team led by Kamel Khalili managed to remove more than 50% of HIV-infected cells from rats and mice by injecting molecular CRISPR scissors into their tails. 

Furthermore, the US and China have approved clinical trials for CRISPR cancer treatment in human patients, aiming to improve our immune system's cancer detection. 

With the ability to modify single nucleotide bases in our DNA, we can develop CRISPR tools and even eliminate lethal genetic diseases such as Haemophilia and Huntington's disease. OX513A, a genetically modified mosquito, was developed by Oxitec that promises a future free of dengue, yellow fever, and malaria. 

Scientists are also working on crops like purple tomato, which has higher antioxidants to boost the immune system, and golden rice, which contains higher vitamin concentrations that contribute to a healthier diet. Crops modified to thrive in minimal spaces and rapidly changing climates may be our only answer to global overpopulation and steeping nutritional demands.

The dark side

In a survey conducted by Pew Research Centre in 2020 across Europe, Asia-Pacific, North America, Brazil, and Russia, an astonishing 63% considered it a misuse of technology. Another report from the same source suggests that 39% of Americans consider GM foods worse for their health. Critics of genetic engineering argue that GM crops may undergo “gene flow” -- where they cross-pollinate with non-GM crops -- to create adverse effects on local ecosystems. 

A solution to this scenario may be “terminator seeds,” that produce sterile offspring after harvest. However, they are understandably banned in many countries, including Brazil and India, because farmers must annually purchase seeds, allowing multinational corporations to monopolize. 

Another example of corporations using bioengineering to monopolize profits lies in the US, where around 90% of GM crops are resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide. This limits the available options for farmers and enables corporations to maximize their control over the market.

Engineered to multiply on scant resources, there are instances when genetically modified organisms are treated simply as “objects” instead of living beings. There is also the ethical and religious side of the argument where many consider the engineering of life to be “against the will of God.” 

Many also believe that we are opening a door that cannot be closed again. What may start as the gene-editing of newborns to cure Alzheimer's could lead to “designer babies,” which will further deepen the socio-economic gap in our society. It probably will be just like shopping for groceries at the convenience store. Take that improved intelligence, throw in better metabolism, and just a pinch of greater muscle density, and you might just create the kid that makes their Asian parents proud. 

However, that's not the end of the story. Militaries may also misuse this technology to develop biological weapons of mass destruction. Imagine an airborne virus 10 times as infectious as Covid that can sterilize one-third of the world's population in an instant; we live in a time where the possibility of creating something like this is no longer limited to the pages of Dan Brown's Inferno.

While it is true that the dark side of genetic engineering may seem daunting, it would be unwise for us to move away from it. Most of the problems mentioned above with genetic engineering lie not in the technology itself but in human nature -- our habit of monopolizing, weaponizing, and fearing what we don't understand.

Despite what misleading Facebook posts may tell you, banning would only lead to this revolutionary tool wandering off into the wrong hands. Instead, we should approach this situation with caution, transparency, and oversight. 

After all, with our tools, imagination is the only limit


Rabbani Rasha Rhythm is a freelance contributor.

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