Cee-Cee Trude

March 5, 2009

What Genes Do You Wear?

Genetic modification is so broad a topic and introduces numerous questions of ethics – Is it right to tamper with Mother Nature? What exactly are “genetic imperfections”? Will diversity be subsequently removed? Is it right to alter genes simply for cosmetic desires? Is it safe? What are the possible repercussions? Is “Gattaca” not as distant as we’d like to think? This is so broad a topic with so many different and layering opinions. Maybe yes for Monsanto, no for birth clinics. Yes for leukemia, no for asthma. Black, white, and gray. Ivory white, off-white, heather gray, ash gray, charcoal, ebony – it’s as if we’re a Crayola box of colors. Where do we even begin?
Personally, I think genetic modification is a valid and ethically okay thing to do. However, there must be limitations: merely because we are capable of doing something doesn’t always mean we should.

Altering the genetic structure of organisms reaps many benefits: scientists have been able to grow rice rich in Vitamin A, which can now be grown in parts of the world where people would normally die of nutrient-deficient diets. Corn is ready from the seed with “built-in pesticides.” Papayas in Hawaii have been altered to become immune to the ring-spot virus so that farmers can harvest bigger and better crops and get them back on the market. Sweet potato farmers in Africa can grow enough food for their families as well as for market due to Kenyan Dr. Florence Wambugu’s work with genetic modification. This technology has enabled harvesters to yield more crops of a better quality with greater cost efficiency. However, there are potential problems that cannot be ignored. With insect-resistant corn becoming more common, pests overtime can become immune to the pesticides grown inside the corn. Furthermore, as more and more GMOs are produced and bred, the less purely organic foods we reap. Is it possible to ensure the complete segregation of the organic from the GMOs? No. Cross-pollination and mating between “the natural” and “the engineered” cannot be prevented 100%. And what about GM livestock? Wild salmon escape their in-ocean hatcheries every year; GM salmon can just as easily make their way into the wild. And while possible intermingling between the natural and the engineered salmon types isn’t likely to take over the ecosystem, there is certainly a potential for semi-detrimental impact.
I was completely taken aback upon learning about an almost manifested idea of genetically modifying soybeans with a gene from Brazil nuts. Isn’t there a potential threat to Brazil nut-allergic soybean consumers? The reason I even drink soymilk in the first place is because I’m slightly allergic to cow’s milk. However, I’m highly allergic to Brazil nuts. Would anything have happened to me if scientists had carried out this idea? I don’t mind that scientists are altering soybeans; I mind that they’re not letting consumers know.
I think GMOs can greatly benefit humanity. However, I see a need for great caution as technology advances into this arena.


Even greater caution needs to be taken when approaching the manipulation of human genes. First of all, we know very little about the human genome. Although we do know which chromosomes code for which diseases, thanks to the Human Genome Project, there is still so much unknown to us. Eradicating or “fixing” an abnormal gene isn’t as simple as turning one on or off necessarily. God created our bodies as such intricate and complicated systems – what about transposons, or the “ghost genes” we learned about in class? But even if we had the complete knowledge and capability to tamper with our genes, does that mean we should? That depends.
I think the overall goal of medicine and science is to enhance the quality of our lives, to make ourselves healthier and minimize suffering. Now of course, we’ll never be able to completely eradicate suffering – the fact is that we live in an imperfect world – but it is something we constantly reach toward. If a geneticist can eliminate an unborn child’s risk of contracting ALS later in life, then yes, I think it’s ethically and morally sound to manipulate the genome in order to do so. If you can terminate a cancer gene’s predisposition to wreak havoc in the body before the disease expresses itself, then by all means, do it. But what about the conditions that aren’t so clear-cut, conditions that aren’t necessarily life-threatening, or even a disease really? Like autism. Although autism isn’t considered “the norm,” would or should parents vie to eliminate that from their child’s genes? Some of the smartest people are autistic; their brains are just wired differently. I guess the answer to that question depends on whether you see autism as debilitating or enabling.
Many people have commented on the nature of suffering. That it makes us stronger, that we gain and grow from having gone through a less than desirable experience. This is true. However, I don’t believe that God ever intended for us to suffer; but through the course of human events…well, that’s another story. If we have the ability to improve our conditions for the better, I think it’s a good thing to take advantage of it. However, I don’t think it’s okay to alleviate one person’s suffering by causing suffering to another. Good can come from suffering, but suffering itself is not good.

If I myself fell victim to a tragic accident, I realize I’d want to do everything within my power to regain my mobility and independence. But would I be comfortable with embryonic stem cell therapy? It looks so enticing and promising to harvest a 3-day old fertilized embryo for its undifferentiated cells. Proponents of this technology have argued that a fertilized egg in a petri dish is not a true human being, that its life is worth less than a fully developed human’s. Would I take advantage of that if I were in a horrible accident? I want to say that I hope not. I don’t think it’s right to help myself at the expense of another’s life. I can’t ignore the fact that the human embryo is human life, or at least potentially so. We were all at that stage at one point in time. A classmate commented that if a joined sperm and egg are considered potential life, he’d consider a single sperm and a single egg to be potential as well, not seeing any difference between the two.
So where do you draw the line? What is potential, and what’s not? Maybe we can think about this in an analogy. This might be silly, but I guess you could compare it to bread. To make bread, you need flour, eggs, water, and salt. Separately, they can’t become bread; they must be combined and kneaded. Separately, there’s not a potential for bread, not until they are joined. And then, the combined ingredients can be baked in the oven until the time is right. The dough is the closest stage to true bread before “incubation” in the oven. A sperm or egg standing alone are simply two gamete cells. But it’s their joining that is the first stage of development.
Now, what about invitro fertilized embryos? Thousands of fertilized eggs are burned each year because they’re not implanted into mothers. Are donated, lab-joined eggs okay to test on? If a person had to choose between burning the eggs or donating them for research, I think it’s better that the eggs be tested on, but it seems like a choice between two wrongs. Maybe it’s less wrong that the eggs be used for research than fire fuel, but there’s still something initially wrong with the whole thing – they’re being destroyed. I simply can’t ignore the fact that an embryo is human life.


Genetic modification and alteration is a complicated topic, one that doctors, researchers, and ethicists have wrestled with for years. This field has room for great discoveries and developments – for farming, healthier living – but at the same time there’s room for great troubles and harm. Genetic modification has incredible potential, but needs to be approached with incredible caution.

Audio File