Genetic Engineering: Playing God?
by Keya Kamat
Biotechnology can now cross animals with plants, leaving the vegetarian confused. The scientific world today has the power to alter the very fabric of nature, by transferring characteristics not only between plants , but cross-altering animals, plants and human beings. Genetic engineering which is without ethical limitation has a serious impact on the environment of animals and plants. It violates our relationship with the natural world. Most people believe animals have a right to live their lives free from human interference with their original genetic structure. Also, that animals can never serve as models of human disease -- just because they’re much too different. But scientists still keep trying -- after all, the human transplant market is worth well over $ 6 billion per year!
Biotechnology in recent years has been progressing in leaps and bounds. It represents a quantum leap in the exploitation of animals, allowing humans to move genes from one species of animal into another totally different species.
Scientists and biotech companies in some major countries of the world want to create new animals that produce more and ‘better’ meat, give up their valuable products such as wool more easily, and have organs that can be used in human transplants. It doesn’t stop there... many of the genetically modified crops now being field-tested in the US (and around the world) could not only have a devastating Jurassic-Park type impact on the global eco-system, but also hit agriculture-based third-world economies dependent on cash crops. Genetic engineering is a one-dimensional ‘reductionist-science’ that ignores the wider dynamics of life systems.
Genetic engineering primarily involves the introduction of genes containing DNA (deoxyribo-nucleus acid) procured from humans or animals into cells of bacteria, yeast or other animals. One of the outcomes is termed ‘Transgenic Animal’. These transgenic animals cannot be bred by natural/traditional selection or artificial insemination.
Donor females are given hormone injections and hormone impregnated sponges are also inserted directly into their reproductive tracts, so as to make them produce lots of egg-cells. This process has been termed ‘super-ovulation’. These eggs are then artificially inseminated either manually or surgically. Next the embryos are collected by further surgery or slaughter. These embryos are then injected with foreign DNA containing the genes of preferable traits, and then transferred into foster mothers, by surgery again.
It takes 80 donors and recipient animals to produce only one transgenic cow -- if everything works perfectly -- which is VERY rare.
Once the transgenic animal is produced, its suffering just about starts... for example, non-porcine genes have been added to pigs, producing animals with gastric ulcers, liver and kidney disorders, lameness, damaged eye-sight, loss of co-ordination, sensitivity to pneumonia and diabetic conditions.
Genetic engineering research is most often carried out on animals such as pigs, mice, sheep, farm animals, fish and sometimes, even on some plants such as the tomato, tobacco and corn.
Vegetarians around the world are seriously wondering whether the food they are eating is actually vegetarian. In the case of Flavor Savor as they are usually called, tomatoes are genetically altered by introducing into them genes from a fish, the Arctic Flounder, so as to reduce freezer damage, to enable them to have a longer shelf-life, to ripen longer on the tree while remaining firm at the time of picking and transporting and to make them bigger and tastier as well. No layman can make out the difference between Flavor Savor and a normal tomato which is primarily why staunch vegetarians want the altered tomatoes labeled.
Other such experiments with vegetables include chicken genes introduced into potatoes for resistance to disease and for increasing shelf-life and size, tobacco altered with mouse genes to reduce impurities or with a gene from fire-flies that makes the leaves glow at night. Some biotechnologists go to the extent where it becomes a game for them --- playing around with genes of animals. This might result in some ghastly creature produced just to satisfy someone’s whims and fancies.
Scientists in the US have bred a mouse called the ‘Oncomouse’ which has been genetically engineered to develop cancer and in due course die a slow, painful death. The first oncomouse was bred in 1981, yet, in the past 15 years, a cure for cancer still seems to elude scientists. Genetic engineering on mice does not stop there. A mouse specifically created to lack an immune
system has been used to grow human organs, like ears, externally, even internally. The absence of an immune system ensures that the mouse will not reject human tissues. Scientists make a look-alike mold of a human organ, say, an ear, with biodegradable polyester fabric or other polymers. They then
transfer the bone/muscle cells into the form and transplant it on the mouse. When ready, the organ is ‘grafted’ from the mouse. The mouse somehow manages to remain alive after the ear is removed.
Similarly, scientists have managed to grow liver, skin, cartilage, bone, ureters, heart valves, tendons, intestines, blood-vessels and breast-tissue with such polymers. But, if the idea of reversing the experiment (substitute the mice with humans) came about, people would call it blasphemous! No thought for the animals is involved. The extent to which these experiments will go is uncertain. A change will only come about when scientists realize the animals’ right to live a normal, healthy life, without man tampering with their genes.
Pigs are also grown transgenetically, so that their organs can be transplanted into humans. Transgenic pigs were first produced in 1985. Scientists have succeeded in making the required organs in pigs capable of producing human cells. These proteins they hope will trick the human immune system while transplanting the organ(s) so that the recipient does not react to the foreign tissue.
Another example is that of sheep that have been injected with hormones, bioengineered to cause wool-shedding to produce the so-called ‘self-shearing’ sheep. This is done in Australia, where, unfortunately for the sheep, the climate is mostly hot and sunny. As a result, some sheep experience an increased rate of abortion. WHERE ON EARTH WILL IT ALL END?
Talking about sheep, meanwhile, Welsh Mountain clone sheep are living proof that life can be created without sperm! A scientist at Rosalin Institute created them by fusing a cell grown in the laboratory with an empty sheep-egg through a spark of electricity. Imagine growing a sheep in a lab-
dish! Ironically, when pondering about doing the same with human beings, scientists find it ‘unethical’!
In another bizarre experiment, Indian scientists at the Nimbalkar Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra, have, by artificial insemination, created an animal with goat-head and the body of a cow. This animal grows fatter faster and the volume of meat has therefore increased.
Scientists claim that they can, and will make genetically-altered animals that will help cure human diseases and illnesses; well, transgenic research has been going on for nearly 20 years, and it still has not cured a single human illness. But illnesses like diabetes, blindness, lameness and cancer (among others) have all been produced unexpectedly in animals subjected to these ridiculous experiments. Genetic engineering at lengths such as these, are a symbol of consumerism gone berserk. Is it really fair that animals and their environment face the brunt of our insatiable curiosity?
Considering that "to err is human" the probabilities of a mis-judgment or mis-step or mis-reaction resulting in a catastrophe are very high. And in such an eventuality, it will be next to impossible to trick the genie (or ‘gene’) back into the bottle (test-tube).
Transgenics: The Coming Genetics Nightmare!
"And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so." -Genesis 1:24