Biotechnology's Impact on Society
Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "Biotechnology in
Perspective." Washington, D.C.: Biotechnology Industry Organization,
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
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 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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