Is Biotechnology Important For Society?
Biotechnology is unavoidable in today’s society. From household products to medical procedures, biotechnology is ubiquitous. Defined as “something that harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and to help improve lives”, (Bio.org). There are three primary fields where biotechnology is used: medical, agricultural and industrial. Development in each of these fields is progressing at an exponential rate, with hundreds of new applications created each year. With progress in this area moving so rapidly, it is important to take time to assess the impacts on society and the environment and to ask whether all of these developments are in society’s best interests in the long term.
Biotechnology evidently has many positive impacts on society. These include advanced medical treatments, food that can be modified to provide for those in need, the manufacture of washing detergents.
Vaccines, OTC (over the counter) medications and even home pregnancy tests are all examples of medical biotechnology. While these examples of biotechnology are still debated peripherally today, the majority of people agree that these products are beneficial to society. As time progresses, what was once cutting edge biotechnology becomes accepted and the debate around it ceases. Eg, when vaccines were first introduced to western society in 1796, the smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner, the majority of people were skeptical of its success and it had little up take initially, in contrast, today 94.7% of five year olds in Australia are up to date with their vaccinations, (Health.gov). This is a dramatic attitude change from the late 1700s and has resulted in the eradication of several life threatening childhood diseases from many countries, such as smallpox and polio.
Clustered Regular Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat known as CRISPR-cas9 is one of the newer very promising biotechnologies to be developed. CRISPR has the potential to cure a myriad of genetic diseases and help with cancer treatment. It does so by recognising the DNA and/or RNA sequence that is causing the illness or disease. In the case of genetic diseases the cas9 protein is used to cut out the sequence that needs editing in order to cure the genetic disease. In cancer it modifies the T-cells so that they can locate and kill the cancer cells. The potential uses deriving from the ability to edit DNA/RNA sequences are exciting; including drug research and pest resilient crops however, there are also deep ethical issues and risks surrounding its use which will be explored below.
Agricultural biotechnology also holds innumerable new possibilities. It focuses on genetically modifying plants to increase crop yields or introduce desirable characteristics into the plants. While selective breeding has been used for hundreds of years, today’s technology permits much faster and greater change. For example, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are commonly used in the agricultural industry to locate and reproduce desirable characteristics in plant species. GMOs seek the desired gene in another species and then modify the DNA of the original plant species with the new gene, thus replicating a desirable characteristic in the original plant. Applications where GMOS have been used to modify species in agriculture include; to develop pest-resistance, to tolerate to extreme climates, to increase crop yield and to contain higher levels of vitamins. Modifications such as these greatly enhance both society and the environment by creating less food waste, more vitamin dense foods, maximise productivity of the limited agricultural land. Golden rice, a rice infused with beta-carotene was developed for use in third world countries where vitamin A deficiency is a problem. It has minimised the development of this nutritional deficiency amongst the population of these countries and helps people stay healthier.
GMOs can also have positive impacts on the environment. In 2012, the USA saw a 37% reduction in the use of pesticides on crops whilst at the same time a 22% increase in crop yields, (Centerforfoodsafety.org). In a world where food shortages and environmental issues are becoming more imminent, this is good news. 19 developing countries are currently using GMOs in cropping, giving 16.7 million farmers increased food production thereby increasing their incomes, (Studies done by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech). In the US 88% of corn, 94% of cotton and 93% of soybeans all originated from plantations using GMOs, (Centerforfoodsafety.org).
On the other hand, there is a dark side to biotechnology. As well as the good, there are numerous negative impacts on society and the environment. The rapid pace at which biotechnology is developing, leaves little time for scientists and governments to evaluate the long term impacts and unintended consequences new applications are likely to have. This is an important concern. Gene drive, a form of extinction whereby a gene is released into a population of animals or plants by sexual reproduction in order to eradicate the species, is a recent development. The benefit of eradicating pests is obvious, however the wider implications of destroying a species on the environment are little understood.
CRISPR has a downside as well. While holding the promise of curing diseases, there are risks as well as ethical questions that arise. When researching a cure for HIV, scientists discovered resistance to the disease in some individuals due to the presence of a mutated protein. They reasoned that by deleting the mutation, patients would be cured. Trials however were troubling because mutations showed up where they should not have. Making the wrong cut in the gene sequence could make someone sicker. Edits of sequences to embryos, could lead to mutations entering the gene pool, passing them on to future generations. CRISPR also raises several difficult ethical questions. A major one focuses around germ-line editing (modifications made to the embryo, sperm and egg cells). While the desire to eradicate genetic diseases in the embryo is understandable, it is difficult not to ask whether “we are opening a door we cannot shut”, (Kurzgesagt). Once editing genes in babies starts, it will be difficult to control the desire to change other aspects such as outward appearance and intelligence. The ethical issues surrounding designer babies are complex.
The development of bioweapons also has the potential to have a huge impact on society and the environment. “Bioweapons are biological weapons, which involve the use of bacteria or other living organisms in order to destroy other organisms” (Collins Dictionary).Viruses could be released on countries or crops, creating food shortages, animal extinction and mass death. The effects of this threat were seen on a small scale in 2002 when five people were killed after Anthrax cells were sent through the mail in a terrorist attack. This shows the potential harm biotechnology could have.
Biotechnology is an important part of society however, it is essential to understand and evaluate the benefits and risks as well as the long term and short term effects of any new application before it is wholeheartedly adopted.
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