My forthcoming novel, A Speck in the Ocean, is set in the twenty-third century, after a total collapse of civilization due to tensions set off by the results of genetic engineering. So what is genetic engineering?
Basically, it is any technology designed to put genes from one organism into a different organism.
Let’s have a look at where this concept began.
Many bacteria contain small circles of DNA called plasmids, which often contain genes for resistance to antibiotics. The plasmid is quite separate from the normal bacterial chromosome and can reproduce independently. In 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen inserted genes for resistance to the antibiotic tetracycline into a plasmid and then placed the plasmid in a bacterium.
The bacterium was allowed to reproduce in a growth medium containing tetracycline, where it formed a colony of healthy bacteria, showing that it had become resistant to the antibiotic. Boyer and Cohen had created the first transgenic organism, i.e. the first organism genetically modified by scientists to contain DNA from another organism.
Only a year later, the first transgenic animal, a genetically modified mouse, was produced. The genetic engineering revolution had begun.
At first there was an uproar about the production of these organisms, and so a group of interested scientists met in 1975 at the Asilomar Conference, which proposed several safety features, including government monitoring of experiments until they could be proved to be safe.
The greatest interest was over the production of genetically modified plants, especially foods. In 1994 the Flavr Savr tomato (which has a longer shelf life) was released commercially, followed by Bt Potato (which produces a pesticide to stop attack by insect pests) the next year, and soon numerous others. Genetically modified pigs could produce more protein than normal pigs, GM salmon could grow twice as fast as normal salmon, etc.
In 2010, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute stunned the world by creating the first completely artificial organism. They did this by assembling a genome and putting it in an empty bacterial cell (i.e. a cell with no nucleus), where it functioned as a living bacterium and began reproducing.
However, probably the most controversial aspect of genetic engineering has been the possibility of producing transgenic humans, and that is what my novel is about.
Why should it be controversial? It seems obvious that if we have the ability to repair genetic faults and diseases in people we should do so. Why should they have to endure unnecessary suffering when the means are at hand to cure them?
It is a very good question, but unfortunately the answer is anything but simple. On the whole, the danger of GM organisms producing dangerous and toxic products has been found to be much less serious than originally thought. Millions of people have eaten GM foods and suffered no adverse effects.
But my main concern is the question with which I concluded my previous post: “What is the next step?”
Supposing we agree to start genetically modifying people, what will be the next step? And the one after that? Once we start down that track, it is almost impossible to stop. So where do we go from there?
G.K. Chesterton had a famous quote on this subject:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.