Recombinant DNA: panacea or pandora box

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In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA which gave an impetus to the science of genetics. DNA is a double stranded molecules which consist of functional units called genes. After the discovery of enzymes called restriction endonucleases, DNA can be cut in a small fragments in the specific position and another DNA cut with this enzyme can be joined together forming a recombinant DNA. Since the discovery of plasmids, an autonomous ,extra chromosomal DNA from the microbes lead to the transfer of genes from any organism via a plamid and expressing the gene in an inexpensive bacterial system. Recombinant proteins are produced when a human gene is joined to a bacterial plamid and expressed in the bacteria. A number of pharmaceutical companies are producing substances such as insulin by using this technology instead of from animal or human tissues(Rita Mulharkar,1997).

By definition, the term "transgenic animal" refers to an animal in which there has been a deliberate modification of the genome - the material responsible for inherited characteristics - in contrast to spontaneous mutation (FELASA, September 1992, revised February 1995). Since the term "transgenic" was coined by J.W. Gordon and F.H. Ruddle in 1981, the use of genetically modified animals have increased as subjects in the field of research. There are three most commonly used methods to produce genetically modified organisms are microinjection of DNA into the pronucleus in a fertilized egg, manipulation of Embryonic stem cells for gene knockout gene targeting and retro viral gene transfer.

Genetically modified organisms are used in 3 main areas of genetic engineering. Firstly, the quality and the quantity of the crops have been improved. The crops are made herbicide resistant instead of disease resistant by the use of the genetic engineering. It is also used for the pharmaceutical production and the relevance to the environment for cleaning the polluted sites. Due to various unknown characteristics of genetically modified organism, its use has been very limited. To date, only genetically modified plants and microbes are used. The use of GMO's has increased tremendously in past few years. Countries like US and Argentina have 80% of their lands growing GMO's particularly corn and soya-bean. By seeing such an increase in the use of GMO's it is necessary to evaluate the benefits and risks involving the use of GMO's.

The ability of recombinant DNA technology to modify the organism in such a way that the GMO's produce preventive molecules in their milk, egg or fruits. Because of the innovative application, medicines or vaccines could be distributed cheaply and making it more accessible for the developing countries. Injected vaccines are costly, requires specially trained medical staff and specific temperature when transported. All the above drawbacks can be avoided by the use of edible vaccines. there are genetically modified plants which have been developed to immunize against hepatitis B and Norwalk virus. Transgenic potatoes contains cholera toxins, making the consumer immune to it upon injestion. Since the field of producing biopharmaceuticals from GMO's is in its early stages, there are concerns regarding the effects of these crops on the insects and animals which feed on them.

Genetically modified plants are used to produce crops rich in nutritional value. Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of death in the children of the developing nations. Golden rice, a genetically modified plan containing beta carotene supplement, was engineered to produce rice which enhances the vitamin A synthesis pathway. GM crops are tailored to herbicide tolerance and pest resistance to increase the yield. Also GM crops have been developed which can grow in specific environment ( e.g drought resistant variety). GM viruses have been successfully reported in targeting the tumor cells and leaving the healthy cells unaffected. Also in laboratories, genetically modified bacteria have been a barrier for women against HIV as it secrets proteins. It is known that naturally occurring organism can be used for the degradation of toxic wastes into less toxic or non toxic material in environment. Thus by genetic modification, the efficiency of the organisms can be increased.

The aim of creating genetically modified organism is for benefiting mankind. If a toxin or allergen is known, the GM food manufacturer would not purposely hurt his loyal customers. Also, the GM food have to be scrutinized more rigorously than normal food products. Even with all the possible care have been taken, there have been various controversies. The cloning of Dolly the Sheep in Scotland(Wilmut et al, 1997) created a possibility of cloning of humans in near future which has been strongly opposed by United States and Great Britain(Masci, 1997; Woodard and Underwood, 1997). People of Great Britain opposed GM foods after the mad cow disease and salmonella outbreaks (Stella G. Uzogara, 2000). A study conducted by a food scientist from Aberdeen, claimed that there was a stop in growth of rats fed on GM potatoes, heightened the resistance.

Genetic modifications in plants may alter the nutritional value of food. This could happen due to decrease in levels of some nutrients and increase in others. Antibiotic resistance as a marker id often used in genetic engineering. There are concerns that they might have an environmental and ecological impact. If these modification are done in crops which are widely used, then it might render antibiotic resistance to the consumers. A report from British Medical Association states that the antibiotic resistant marker gene could be transferred into the disease causing microbes found in the gut of humans and other animals consuming GM crops (Stella, 2000) which could result in antibiotic resistant microbes in nature. By genetically modifying a plant could switch on the genes responsible for producing a toxin and the desired effect of modification, which could lead to various complications in consumers.

Environmentalists are concerned that there could be cross pollination between the GM plants and the wild species which could result in unintentional gene transfer. The cross pollination could result in production of super weed around the wild type species, lowering the crop yield and ecological imbalance. Animal rights activist are major groups against the cloning or genetic engineering involving animals(Stella,2000).

Patenting of GM crops have given big companies, right to monopoly. Thus creates dependency if farmers to the companies for any agricultural need which is against the business and humanitarian ethics. A new technology called "terminator technology" stops the plants ability to germinate second time, making farmers completely dependent on the companies for agricultural package. Religious issues can be violated with the use of GM crops. Religious groups like Muslims and Jews will oppose the crops contain pig genes. Also the vegetarians may have issues with the crops containing animal genes.

Although there is benefit in genetic modification but the release of Genetically modified organism in the market should be done after avoiding potential risk. Time and effort must be devoted to field testing before release of any new genetically engineered organism or food (Paolelti and pimental, 1996).

Biotechnology companies must prevent the cross pollination to weeds or nearby farm. They should conduct strict safety and allergic testing and withdrawing suspected food before they hit the market shelf (stella, 2000).

Genetic engineering and recombinant DNA technology has the power to change lives in positive way. It would be unfair to call it a 'Pandora's Box" on the basis of being unnatural and immoral. This new technology has produced seed which can give high yield of crops which could remove hunger from various poor nations. These crops not only give high yield but have high nutritional value. Genetic engineering is only the logical way of feeding and medicating an over populated world(Lesney, 1999).

Genetic engineering reduce the use of expensive chemicals by rendering plants defence against diseases and pest. It has created special traits of plants which can grown in adverse conditions like drought, high pH and salt concentration(stella, 2000). When comparing risk with benefits of recombinant DNA technology, it is clear that there are more benefits to this technology than risk.


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