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Chapter: Biotechnology Applying the Genetic Revolution: Bioethics in Biotechnology

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Possible Dangers to Individuals, Society, or Nature

What of real dangers as opposed to a vague fear of the unknown? History shows that most technologies can be used for a variety of purposes, both helpful and destructive.

POSSIBLE DANGERS TO INDIVIDUALS, SOCIETY, OR NATURE


What of real dangers as opposed to a vague fear of the unknown? History shows that most technologies can be used for a variety of purposes, both helpful and destructive. Dynamite is used in mining and quarrying and in ammunition. Improved nutrition gives healthier children and stronger soldiers to kill others. Box-cutters can be used to open a carton of Red Cross supplies or hijack an aircraft. And so on. Obviously biotechnology can be abused, just like any other technology. Should we stop making advances because they can be abused?

What about the accidental or incidental hazards of biotechnology? All improvements in human health and prosperity have side effects that we cannot predict. Increased life expectancy results in more lonely old people, which in turn burdens the health care system. A greater proportion of retired people perturbs the distribution of wealth. Decreased infant mortality exacerbates overpopulation and affects the environment both by consuming scarce resources and causing pollution. Overcrowding also promotes the emergence and spread of novel infectious diseases. Other technologies also cause unwanted side effects. Modern transportation has speeded getting the sick to hospital, yet large numbers of people are killed in car accidents. Should we get rid of our cars, trains, and planes because some people die using them?

A widespread fear is that genetic engineering will result in the creation of monsters, mutant humans, or virulent new diseases. Will some genetic construct escape from a laboratory and crossbreed with some wild organism, forming a fearsome hybrid monster ( Fig. 25.3 )? How many experiments are necessary to examine whether or not these things will actually happen? How can you predict all possible outcomes or side effects? Should these technologies be banned until we can predict all possibilities? In reality, very few people are extremists who would ban all technological advances. Most people tend to examine each case on an individual basis.



Indeed, in 1975, during the early days of recombinant DNA research, the molecular biology community itself met at Asilomar, California, and called for a moratorium on thoseexperiments that were seen as potentially hazardous. This respite allowed the NIH to generateguidelines to oversee recombinant DNA research.

More mundane, but also more realistic, is the worry that improved characteristics engineered into useful crop plants may be genetically transferred to weeds. The improved weeds would gain similar advantages such as resistance to drought, insects, or herbicides. The potential for escape of engineered organisms or clusters of engineered genes and their possible effects on the natural world is a major source of contention. Of course, ecosystems can be damaged simply by the entry of new species from elsewhere (without any genetic engineering). The classic case is the introduction of rabbits to Australia.


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