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Biotechnology's Impact on Society

Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "Biotechnology in Perspective." Washington, D.C.: Biotechnology Industry Organization, 1990.

The effects of any new technology introduced on the scale anticipated for biotechnology extend beyond the factories and research centers influencing our everyday lives. Biotechnology has, for example, made it possible to detect, and in some cases treat, diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, diabetes, and cystic fibrosis. Following initial concerns that genetic engineering could give rise to infectious organisms - the spread of which would be difficult to contain - a stringent set of guidelines was drawn up by the government and leading scientists in the mid-1970s to regulate research in this field. While it is not possible to eliminate completely the risk of a genetic engineering accident, the experience of the last ten or so years of research has indicated that the chances of constructing a disease-producing organism by accident are very remote. This is because such pathogens require an extremely complex set of distinct characteristics, and are effective only when all are present.

A High-Tech, Low-Risk Technology

Containment of experiments is the key to safety. Microbiologists have gained valuable experience over many years in handling extremely dangerous natural organisms, such as smallpox virus and cholera bacteria. Physical containment (airtight chambers and sterilization of all equipment) is backed up by biological containment. The K-12 strain of E. coli used for the vast majority of experiments, although originating from the E. coli organism present in the human intestine, has become accustomed to laboratory "penthouse" conditions. These optimum conditions are provided by microbiologists concerned with minimizing variation in laboratory data. As a result, scientists have shown that such strains cannot survive in the harsher conditions of the human body or the external environment. Other approaches include the use of strains that specifically require for their survival chemicals not present in the human body. Thus, current research carried out under the strictest guidelines carries minimal risk to workers and the public at large.

Concern has been voiced that biotechnology might increase the risk of biological warfare, and some have speculated that biologists today are stepping into the shoes of the nuclear physicists of 40 years ago. It is undoubtedly a daunting aspect of the deployment of biotechnology that will require continued vigilance.

Improved genetic tests based on biotechnological advances can be used to track down criminals in assault cases based on the uniqueness of their DNA. Genetic counseling can provide advice on heritable diseases, and genetic screening of workers in possible risk industries is being considered. DNA probes are providing breakthroughs in early diagnosis of disease. As detection of genetic predispositions becomes more predictable, a great deal may be known at birth of an individual's prospects in life. The moral question then arises as to who has access to this information and how this will affect the individual's quality of life.

Is Biotechnology Safe?

Many people have voiced concern about biotechnology and genetic engineering. Scientists have considered the issue of safety over recent years. A special committee of the National Academy of Sciences specifically reviewed the issues on the introduction into the environment of organisms genetically engineered using recombinant DNA technology. They concluded that "there is no evidence that unique hazards exist either in the use of R-DNA technique or in the transfer of genes between unrelated organisms," and that "the risks associated with the introduction of R-DNA engineered organisms are the same kind as those associated with the introduction of unmodified organisms."

The committee concluded that rDNA techniques constitute a powerful and safe new means for the modification of organisms for the benefit of animals and humans. They also stated that there is adequate scientific knowledge to guide the safe and prudent use of such organisms outside research laboratories.

Legal Implications

It will be essential that such issues are aired in public debate as the technology develops. Many countries are actively reviewing the safety and ethics of biotechnology research and its applications. Some countries have already established research guidelines for work on embryo transplantation, embryo research, and surrogate motherhood. Lawyers and the public at large will be required to face up to these and similar questions as the biosciences, and biotechnology in particular, move forward.

Legal problems have already emerged regarding patent laws. In 1980, for example, a U.S. court overturned existing practice and ruled that genetically-engineered microbes may be patented.

The Benefits

The potential benefits include solving world food shortages, and improvements in medicine, agriculture, and veterinary sciences. We can confidently expect biotechnological solutions to many essential industrial processes that currently produce toxic effluents. An increasing role for biotechnology in environmental management will undoubtedly follow. Because the prospect of serious biohazards appears to be receding, it does not mean that strict regulation of the new technology should be relaxed. Provided such vigilance is maintained, mankind can look forward to a wide range of exciting prospects that stem from biotechnology.

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