• Parise Lockwood

Is GM now OK?

Image credit: The Scientist

The first successful genetic modification on an organism was performed in 1973 by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen. By incorporating a gene which provided tetracycline resistance to E.coli, a new scientific era was born, promising unprecedented opportunities within the biotech industry.

Since the discovery of recombinant DNA technology, genetic modification has continued to advance and now, for the first time, we can go from being creatures to becoming creators. Technologies such as CRIPSR gives us the ability to almost effortlessly cut, edit and add genes of choice into any chosen organism.

But what are the consequences of this? Should we really be allowed to play “God”?

Prior, to genetic modification, humans have naturally edited the genomes of organisms for thousands of years via selective breeding. Attractive traits of one individual are combined with that of another to produce a “better” version of that organism. This has allowed us to not only produce tastier apples, but to even domesticate wolves.

So why do we fear genetic modification so much?

Ethical debates have been circling the subject for years due to the unknown consequences genetic modification could have on future generations and the state of the world. Yet, recently, it has been announced that a vote has been passed in Florida Keys to release GMO male mosquitos out into the wild. These altered males mate with the wild female mosquitos causing any female offspring to be terminated leading to the eradication of Aedes aegypti within the area. The ethical concerns were not ignored but considered that the risks involved with releasing genetically modified mosquitos would be smaller than the amount of lives currently at risk from mosquitos transmitting infections such as dengue, zika and chikungunya. The GM mosquitos are expected to be released from January 2021.

Although this is a major step in the acceptance of genetic modification, it is not the first.

The biotech company that supplied Florida Keys with the mosquitos is called Oxitec who have also worked with other regions to help control pests. They tweak the fertility of the species to help eradicate pests which have become resistance to current traditional methods of terminating them, such as insecticides. This novel way will help improve crop health and yield whilst also protecting individual’s health.

Currently, human genetic modification is not allowed however some individuals have taken this into their own hands. Calling themselves “biohackers or grinders” they use GM to modify themselves with DIY biology. They also provide the public with CRISPR kits which allow any individual to edit the genes of bacteria and, until recently, those of humans too. There are no laws or regulations which stop you performing GM on yourself, providing a loophole for people to tamper and experiment with their own genome for the first time.

Despite all the concerns, genetic modification has too much potential to do good in the world to be kept behind ethical barriers forever. With the correct regulations in place, I feel that there will be a point in the future where it will be considered unethical to not use genetic modification on genetic diseases which could be cured.

I believe it will not be uncommon to see more genetic modification in the modern world and am excited to see the benefits which we will receive from it.

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