Laura Bickle

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Genetic manipulation by humanity. How is it helpful and how is it harmful?

Humans have had a significant and direct impact on the Earth and the other organisms that inhabit it. Since the onset of agriculture, humans have manipulated plants and animals to suit their needs which has brought disease and hardship as well as helped civilization advance.

More recently science and technology has given us the ability to alter the gene sequences directly.

Many believe we are meddling (via GMOs) in things we don't understand and could cause problems. Perhaps by inserting a piece of DNA, you might be screwing up some type of regulatory, less understood DNA function. It may not be relevant in the original organism, or your experimental models, but could it be bad for us?

I think a good avenue is to systematically expose other plant and animal organisms to conditions we would like them to adapt to, such as warmer temperatures and reduce required surface area, etc.

What do you prescribe in the future of gene manipulation? Hopes? Fears?

Which avenue would you pursue, and why?

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    May 11 2011: I apologize in advance for any missing 'a's and 'g's in my response. I've dropped my laptop a few times...
    Quite honestly, I'm pro genetic modification. The fact is that given the accelerating growth of the world population and the environmental degradation, lack of/mismanagement of resources that we are facing in our current time, genetically modifying our crops may be one of the most feasible methods of supporting the inevitable growth of people. The use of gene transfer can make plants more drought-resistant-an important feature in the climactically unstable times that will occur as a result of climate change. Genes that cause the production of certain essential nutrients can be transferred into staple crops, thus reducing levels of preventable diseases, as has been done with beta carotene in golden rice.
    Thus far, the genetic modifications made have not seemed to have any adverse effects with consumption, but does run the potential risk of creating a 'super-weed'.
    The use of genetic modifications in animals has so far been beneficial, with cows (r was it sheep?) secreting hormones in their milk that aid in lung tissue elasticity. That said, the idea of genetic engineering in animals, making them genetically superior, is quite an alarming concept if practiced in humans. Is it possible some sort of herrenvolk would be created? Even typing it seems somewhat ludicrous, like a science-fiction horror, but if technology were to advance to that point, it may be a threat. I wouldn't say that regulations should be put on how scientists experiment as, ultimately, that would hinder findings, but how can that be controlled?
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      May 12 2011: Thanks for your response.

      To your last paragraph,

      The concept of herrenvolk is indeed scary. I think the possibility is likelier than you think; It certainly has happened in the past (eugenics/Nazi-ism), and some governments around the world aren't as concerned with ethics as their people or global standards. In fact I already suspect...

      Should we limit this knowledge to entities that can be trusted to use it ethically? If Kim Jong il or his successor decides to incorporated genetic engineering into his insane plans, should we take steps to prevent his understanding of this technology?
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    Jul 21 2011: Every single crop grown by humans has been selected over thousands of years by humans to have the traits we want, therefor we have already been doing genetic modification. On top of that we have covered almost all of the arable land in these genetically modified crops and it's only now that we are directly modifying genes that people get into a fuss. It's not GM that people are afraid of, it is the lack of knowledge about GM. GM is like any other discovery people are afraid of, it's different, and people don't understand it so they are afraid of it. I bet you there were people during the agricultural revolution who were like, "yo, I don't think we should live in one spot. It's going to be bad for us for such and such a reason." Would any person agree with them now? I don't think so.
  • May 15 2011: genetic manipulation was actully one of the building blocks of society. humans have bred animals to suit they own purposes for milliniea and that has been important to us ever since
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      May 15 2011: Many propose that there was no disease before the advent of agriculture. Therefore, genetic manipulation gave rise to something that has again and again wreaked havoc on society for millennia to come. There would have been no polio, sweating sickness, AIDS, plague, etc. if humans had not interfered with cultivating plants and animals. I wonder what we would look like today if we had stuck to our hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
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        May 15 2011: Although I agree that the advent of agriculture opened the door for an increase in disease in humnas, I disagree about the reasons. What agriculture eventually caused was the setting up of permanent dwelling places for humans. It also allowed for a remarkable increase in population. These two events alone can account for a significant increase in disease.
        Permanent dwelling places means that humans were left in close contact with their own waste products. Previously they were allways on the move and rarely stayed anywhere more than a couple of months. This allowed ultraviolet rays from the sun and biological processes to dispose and sterilize the waste. Bacteria, etc that lives on human waste will have an affinity for humans. Therefore it would be much easier for it to make evolutionary leaps to infecting humans directly.
        An increase in population means an increase in genetic diversity. A proportion of this genetic diversity will have negative effects on the organism. This along with the fact that an agricultural community can support weaker individuals would have resulted in a dilution of the strength of the genetic pool.
        These are both instances of how seemingly positive actions can have unanticipated negative results in the long run.
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    May 15 2011: Since at least the age of agriculture humans have been improving their position within the biosphere at the expense of other organisms. This is a basic fact of nature. Our biosphere is a finite closed system. When one organism uses part of that system then other organisms cannot. For an organism to exist sustainably within such a system it must create new parts to be used at a similar rate to which it uses parts of the system.
    When you consider how complex our biosphere is it is easy to understand how easily balances that exist within the system may be disturbed. This complexity is also what creates the robustness of the system.
    The system of our biosphere as a whole is extremely robust. The individual parts of the biosphere are not as robust. This is where the human involvement in the biosphere has had it's greatest impact.
    Unfortunately we do not have enough knowledge of all of the components of the biosphere and how they interact for us currently to make changes to it based upon any form of knowledge or predictable results. As a result of this lack of understanding we frequently damage important parts of the biosphere without realizing that we have done so until the negative impact of our changes start to express themselves.
    This has created a situation where we are forced to make changes to the biosphere to remedy the results of previous changes. It is something like having a tiger by the tail. We have to continue making changes but we are still not sure about how those changes will turn out. Previous experience shows us that the new changes will probably require more changes to remedy their negative results.
    This has been a long winded way of saying that we really don't know how these changes will turn out, but our previous attempts to change the biosphere indicate that they will probably turn out in some negative manner.
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      May 15 2011: Interesting response. While I agree that there will likely by unintended consequences, there will also be great benefits. The likelyhood that the benefit of genetic manipulation will out-weigh the cost in the future? I agree with you, at the point the analysis can't be made. It's a matter of chance.
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    May 13 2011: we should first build a library/repository of the natural genomes before we begin to alter them en mass.
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      May 13 2011: I think that process is happening as we catalog and study individuals' genomes, but we certainly need a way to restore the genome if the alterations cause problems. If there is a way to get the genes in, there should be a way to get the genes back out. I don't know if we have that capability (to get a gene to purge itself) and I will try to find out.

      I'm thinking of a scenario where the first few generations of GM humans will benefit, but down the line it may produce some unforeseen, unintended consequences.

      One other thing I think we need to consider is that our choices should not decrease genetic diversity. We can't just start making everybody tall, smart, trim and attractive. Even simply riding the population of genetic disease will have some impact on genetic diversity and our ability to evolve in the future. We have to make sure we can predict these impacts so we can make informed decisions.
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    May 11 2011: Fears I have the cure, yet no one will trust...
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    May 11 2011: I'd say pursue cures, and where to find the cures, etc... I'm short on words at the minute. (nature)
  • May 10 2011: Hopes: I hope it becomes an easily accessible resource that will serve as a gigantic asset for humanity.
    Fears: I fear the unknown. We know virtually nothing about the possible long-term effects that could arise from human genetic manipulation on such a large scale.
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      May 12 2011: "Guns, germs and Steel" by National Geographic makes the case that humans are responsible for a vast majority of (if not all) human disease on Earth, via domestication (manipulation) of plants and animals. It's a convincing argument.

      What makes genetic engineering immune to negative consequences?

      I am a proponent of genetic engineering, but I want to know what we're getting into, and I think it's beneficial to tease out all possible ramifications. I have many friends who are so afraid of GMOs. How do I put their minds at rest? Can I put their minds at rest? Should I be scared of GMOs as well?

      What we used to call "junk" DNA has recently been revealed to have a significant role in necessary regulatory functions. I have a sneaking suspicion that we may not have enough grasp on genetics yet to really know what we're getting into.
      • May 12 2011: I am complete agreement with you. So many of my friends and some of my family are scared of GMO's too.
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          May 15 2011: There are some basic facts to consider here. First; everything affects everything. When we change one aspect of the biosphere we start a chain reaction that will eventually affect all aspects of the biosphere. Two; we do not have anywheres near enough knowledge about how these chain reactions occur. As a chain reaction goes through succesive steps it gets more complex in each step. Our ability to understand the effects of an action probably only run as far as three or four of these steps. Meanwhile there are hundreds or thousands of steps which we have initiated with absolutely no idea of what the result will be. Three; existing organisms on the planet are the result of millions of changes. What exists now is what has survived the past. Types of organisms that have existed for a long time show a propensity for surviving changes which have occurred. This does not mean that they will survive new changes.
          What history shows us is that when large changes occur over short periods of time there is a large number of organisms that do not survive. The more cataclysmic the change the more cataclysmic the die off. This would speak to the wisdom of not making any more changes to the biosphere. The question is, can we not make any more changes to the biosphere?