The Convention on Biological Diversity signed on 5 July 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio “Earth Summit”) defines biotechnology: “as any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use”.
Understand the many disciplines that contribute to Biotechnology
The main focus of biotechnology revolves around the use of molecular biology in the application of genetic engineering. Biotechnology encompasses many disciplines and relies on contributions from areas such as chemistry, computer science, mathematics, biology and engineering in addition to other fields such as economics and philosophy.
Historic and current applications of biotechnology and its products
Fermentation to produce foods
Fermentation was discovered over 10,000 years ago and is widely considered to be the most ancient biotechnological discovery. Mankind was producing beer, wine, vinegar and bread using yeast. Lactic acid bacteria in milk and moulds were used to produce cheese. Modern food production still employs these processes but the cultures have been genetically refined and purified so that only the most desirable traits remain.
Preserving food through drying, salting and freezing was practiced even before anyone really understood why food spoiled in the first place. Louis Pasteur’s research on the spoilage of win in 1864 was the first attempt to research food technology in a scientific manner.
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)
PCR is a technique in molecular biology use to amplify a few copies of a piece of DNA through thermal cycling generating millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence. This technique is used for a variety of purposes including DNA sequencing in cloning, analysis of hereditary genetic diseases or even in the identification of genetic fingerprints used in forensic science.
The elimination of pollutants and waste from the environment is a concern that has intensified in recent years as humanity strives to find sustainable ways to cleanup contaminated environments. Bioremediation harnesses the natural ability of microbial xenobiotic metabolism to degrade and transform a huge range of compounds including hydrocarbons and metals.
List and describe different types of biotechnology and their applications
There are a number of jargon terms for sub-fields of biotechnology.
Red biotechnology refers to biotechnology used in medical processes. Its applications include the production of antibiotics, vaccines and genomic manipulation to cure diseases.
White biotechnology refers to biotechnology used in industrial processes. Its applications include using organisms to produce useful chemicals. The aim is to surpass traditional manufacturing processes by consuming fewer resources.
Green biotechnology refers to biotechnology used in agricultural processes. Its applications include designing plants to grow under specific conditions or in the presence/absence of agricultural chemicals. One of its aims us to produce more environmentally friendly solutions separate from traditional industrial agriculture.
Bioinformatics addresses biological problems using information technology. It plays a key role in areas like biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector. Bioinformatics also helps in the analysis of functional genomics, structural genomics, and proteomics amongst others.
Provide examples of potential advances in Biotechnology
Red biotechnology, especially in the field of regenerative medicine, is poised to transform healthcare. Advances in genetics, stem-cell research and cloning promises a golden age in medical care for the future.
Genetics is the principle science behind regenerative medicine. Recombinant DNA technology is currently applied in producing vaccines to combat hepatitis B and human-protein drugs to treat diabetes. New protein drugs are in development to treat a wider range of diseases. It is speculated that genes can be used to stimulate the growth of new tissue, and create antibodies to either suppress or enhance the immune system. This can be used to treat diseases such as arthritis and various cancers in the future. Regenerative medicine, unlike chemical based drugs that simply supports failing or damaged organs or tissues, cures disease while having less toxic side effects.
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Cellular biology plays a major role in regenerative medicine. Human cells are currently being used in a variety of ways such as growing blood vessels and manufacturing artificial skin. Stem cell research offers even more promising treatments. In the future, adult stem cells can be harvested, cultured, and reinserted to heal damaged tissue, bones, nerves, and organs for those suffering brain and spinal injuries. Adult stem cells have limited flexibility as they are often difficult to locate and activate, this means they are unviable in the treatment of a number of disease and injuries. Embryonic stem cells are easier to obtain and their plasticity offers greater therapeutic benefit.
Regenerative medicine promises many benefits. Better precision in diagnostics means earlier and more effective medical interventions. The Human Genome Project and ubiquitous monitoring will allow medicine to develop an appropriate response to the onset of debilitating and life-threatening diseases. Effective therapies will affect the quality of many patients’ lives. Diseased or damaged organs can be repaired or replaced completely. This will prove a great boon for the world’s ageing population as it improves the longevity of human life.
Reflect on how it affects you and the world
There is intense debate over the development of medical biotechnologies. Studies in genetics, cloning and stem-cell research have sparked unflattering headlines. How do we balance the great hope of treating currently incurable conditions such as Alzheimer’s with the moral cost that many argue is to high? Will embryonic stem-cell research and ”therapeutic” cloning mean a callous commoditization of human life at its most vulnerable stage? Or are attempts to restrict development in regenerative medication condemning countless individuals to needless suffering?
Will the benefits of regenerative medicine be distributed evenly, or will only the wealthy be able to afford it? What will be the social effects of a society populated by genetically enhanced individuals of varying levels? Does this prospect mean greater or less regulation of regenerative medicine research?
Admittedly, these questions each embody a number of issues that are contentious in their own right. And each of them requires detailed analysis and scrutiny. Such inquiries are themselves shaped by a bigger picture of religious, moral, social, and political convictions. To what end are the current and future developments in regenerative medicine directing us? And how do we judge whether this end is desirable?
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Commoditization of human life
Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is a technique to produce human embryonic stem (ES) cells for research or therapy. The technique creates human embryos that serve as sources of human ES cells. In deriving the human ES cells, the cloned human embryo (enucleated human egg transplanted with somatic cell nucleus) is destroyed at the blastocyst stage. This technique has many significant applications for clinical applications and medical research. Human ES cells produced from unfertilized egg cells transplanted with a nucleus from a human somatic cell can serve as a renewable source of cells with varied applications. These cells are capable of self-renewal and can transform into any other type of cell in the human body. Human ES cells can also be used for research into in vitro studies of normal human embryogenesis, abnormal development, human gene discovery and teratogen testing.
Therapeutic cloning involves the destruction of cloned human embryos. The moral controversy arises depending on what status cloned human organizes possess. I feel that there are 3 main responses to this question.
Human being and human embryo are essentially different
Human embryos are essentially different from human beings and have no status. Bonnie Stienbock stipulates that cognitive status is not a matter of species membership but rather the ability to think, feel and experience. Early embryos cannot feel or experience anything. Thus, nothing you do to an embryo, including the act of killing it, can harm its interests because embryos do not have any interests.
Human being and human embryos are essentially the same
Peter Garret, research director of Life, an anti abortion group in Britain states that therapeutic cloning is simply a form of technological cannibalism. The moral reasoning being that cloning a human embryo to harvest stem cells would be equivalent to creating an individual with the eventual aim of plundering him/her for body parts. To bring it in line with Steinbock’s view, species membership is the core determining factor when deciding whether a human organism has cognitive status.
Respect for human life
The third response presents that view that while human embryos are not equivalent to human beings, they are still a form of human life and are deserving of respect. Steinbock stipulates that the significance of and importance of embryos is symbolic. The respect that we confer to human embryos is analogous to that we accord to dead bodies. A dead human body does not have interests by itself but we show respect for dead bodies by burying them in accordance with our social or religious views. We do this because the dead human body represents a person who has existed. Similarly, we can argue that respect should be accorded to human embryos because of its potential to become a human being.
I do feel that the development of sound bioethics depends on according embryos, fetuses or babies some sort of moral significance and importance. But as these reflections show, advances in biotechnology lead us to explore the philosophical issues regarding how to develop and apply new medical and technological possibilities. There are conflicts regarding the moral standing of early human life, issues regarding the meaning of personal identity and the potential to become a person. The challenges of the future will not only be scientific, but will require careful grounding in bioethics.
Post – humanism
The development of superior diagnostic, therapeutic, preventive and enhancement techniques are sure to raise human life expectancy. Eminent researchers in the field of biogerontology such as Aubrey de Grey speculates that if accelerated aging syndrome such as Progeria can be fought as a disease, natural aging should fall along the same lines. Regenerative medicine can eventually thwart the natural aging process resulting in increased longevity. This is certainly within the realm of possibility, when all dysfunctional organs can continually be refreshed, we would have a substantially longer lifespan.
If regenerative medicine is the first step in curing aging and subsequently, a declaration of war on human mortality, then an interesting issue is forced upon us. Should humans use technology to overcome or extend the limits of our mortality imposed on us by the evolution of human biology? When indeed these limits are overcome or greatly extended, then mortality is no longer a definitive feature of human life. In the absence of this defining feature, are human beings aspiring to become mere artifacts of our own engineering?
I personally feel that much of the meaning and virtue in being human stems from our understanding of the finitude of mortal life. Much of the nobility embodied in human beings stem from procreation, a recognition that our future is shaped by and for our successors. Nothing good can come from continually extending the life of the progenitors.
Preimplantation Genetics Testing and Eugenics
Developments in reproductive medicine have provoked another range of questions, arising from the fact that techniques involving in vitro fertilization make it possible to examine and possibly alter the embryo prior to its implantation and development through fetal to the infant stage. This leads to what is known as the designer baby issue; imposing an ideal pattern on an embryo. The usual practice in clinics is to create a number of embryos in vitro and retain only those that meet the desired criteria. There are a number of situations where this procedure may be chose.
It may be a matter of parents seeking to have a child free from a genetic condition known to be a risk in the family. However, groups representing the disabled claim that such selection disvalues disabled people. The same situation can be applied to selecting embryos by sex when the genetic condition involved is sex-linked. This would have broader impacts when sex selection is done for cultural or social reasons since this raises issues on the relative value set on male and female and the impact on the balance of sexes in society.
Pre-implantation Tissue Typing (PITT) to produce a compatible donor for a sick family member takes the discussion onto new grounds. Many of them were covered in the film “My Sister’s Keeper” and it raises questions about the exploitation of the resulting child and the violation of its own human rights claims.
The spectrum of a new type of eugenics lies in the wait in any debate about designer babies. Scientists have rubbished the practice of eugenics as the convergence on a monoculture of ideal types may lead to elimination of traits that turn out to have evolutionary advantages.
The issues that I have discussed have shown that there is a possibility of altering the embryo’s genetic structure either to eliminate some genetic diseases or, to promote sought-after characteristics such as intelligence or sporting potential. We are already screening various potential lives (embryos) in vitro to decide which should be given a chance at live and which should be allowed to perish. It is no longer the creation of live as we discussed earlier but the control, shaping and disposal of life that are at stake. This all leads to a “brave new world” of scientific eugenics.
A variety of philosophers and scientists have argued for a developmental model of the legal status of the human embryo and foetus. The Roe vs. Wade decision held that pregnancy can be divided into 3 periods, corresponding to the degree that the foetus has been developed. The Supreme Court upheld that these periods correspond to an increasing standing of the emerging person in the human community. Yet the national debate continues and the lack of consensus about the status of the embryo has resulted in contradictory legal definitions in the US. Legality of embryo research varies from country to country as well.
There is no clear guideline to the usage and treatment of embryonic material as there are too many fundamental questions that go to the root of humanity. Yet, I suggest that we apply the Kantian tradition of respect for persons and human rights that has been part of our history of civilized societies that balances. By all means, move ahead with stem cell research but let us be aware of all the issues surrounding it. Bioethics will continue to be faced with challenging questions, some of which we have not even conceptualized. In considered how to deal with moral issues, we should not narrow the range of persons who have moral responsibilities in determining answers. Both bioethicists and lawmakers must look to guidance from the public, not only from scientific and business interests. The public too have a special duty, which the media should assist in, to be well-informed in these complex matters.
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