Advances in the field of genetics today are the source of the most grandiose hopes and the most intense concerns. Genetics has revolutionized medicine, engineering, biotechnology, biology, agriculture, and more. The experimental creation of genetically modified organisms began in the 1970s. The first transgenic products were created by the American company Monsanto in the late 1980s and are now widely spread around the world.
For example, more than half of the world’s soybean today is genetically modified. Genetically modified organisms are created by means of genetic engineering, a science that allows the insertion of a DNA fragment from any other organism into the genome of a plant, animal, or microorganism to give it certain traits.
Nowadays, with the development of biotechnologies, genetic modification is possible to perform not only on plants but also on microorganisms, viruses, animals, and even humans. Studies in this area greatly interest researchers, especially the use of genetic technologies in medicine. However, the most important topic is the safety of genetically modified foods, which includes animals as well. This paper will explore the topic of genetically modified animals and discuss their social and ethical implications.
In recent decades, genetic changes in animals have been intensively studied and became subject to advances in genetic engineering. According to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (n.d.), the animal’s genes are manipulated with biotechnology tools with the purpose of giving it a new particular trait.
New organisms are created by combining the genes of non-related species and permanently changing their genetic codes, which can transfer genetic changes to their descendants. Each animal has thousands of different traits. Each trait has a corresponding gene, which represents a small segment of the molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid. If a gene responsible for appearance is removed or added, the appearance will change, respectively. DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid- the primary object of genetic modification carries genes and produces protein.
The gene with the desired trait is selected and gone through steps of isolation and purification using various techniques with restricting enzymes. Then, the selectable marker gene is added to the DNA and eventually inserted in the animal, where body cells transform (Oliviera, Aguiar, & Domingues, 2016). Different techniques besides DNA microinjection, such as intracytoplasmic sperm injection, retroviral vectors, and somatic cell nuclear transfer, are also practiced in animal genetic modification (Lievens, Petrillo, Querci, & Patak, 2015).
While there are many genetically modified fruits and vegetables already available today, some GM animals are predicted to be available in grocery stores soon, for example, salmon. However, the benefits of modifying animals go beyond the food industry. This promises a real revolution in agriculture and healthcare: it would allow the optimization of agricultural activities and the facilitation of the production of valuable pharmaceutical substances.
One of the most prominent benefits of genetics is the ability to prevent human diseases through the production and testing of pharmaceutical proteins, drugs, and vaccines. As reported by Biotechnology Innovation Organization (n.d.), “GE animals are integral to the development of new diagnostic techniques and drugs for human disease while delivering clinical and economic benefits that cannot be achieved with any other approach” (para.3). Genetically modified animals are healthier and produce higher-quality food using fewer resources. Consequently, this improves the environment, minimizes wastes, and provides useful products, such as spider silk.
Social and Ethical Implications
Despite many advantages of genetic modification, its ethical and social implications are still a controversial topic. Concerns about animal’s health were raised because gene manipulations can cause mutagenesis and various side effects. For instance, pigs are modified to gain muscles quickly, but growing too fast creates pressure on their hearts and causes discomfort and pain. The safety of food products derived from GM animals and health risks is another area of public concern.
As reported by Bawa and Anilakumar (2013), currently Food and Drug Administration, has not yet approved GM animals, except for salmon, as safe for food. Society has long advocated the necessity of legislation that would require labeling GMO products correctly. In the United States, GMO labeling law had only been enacted a year ago. Furthermore, using GM animals in food would require creating and maintaining strict regulations.
In the study of Ribeiro, Barone, and Behrens (2016), genetic modification of animals is less acceptable than of plants and microorganisms; negative attitudes towards GMOs were linked to fear of side effects, and positive attitudes were linked with social and personal benefits. Indeed, its economic and social benefits are undoubtful. Genetically modified animals contribute to scientific research in medicine to find the cure for serious diseases like cancer, and also for growing human transplant organs.
Moreover, animals can be modified to improve the environment by reducing pollution, provide high-quality food resources supplied with vitamins, and more. The most popular ethical issue is whether it is moral to manually change animals that were created by God. Some people believe animals should live and grow naturally, and human interference in the process violates God’s laws. The genetic modification contradicts Darwin’s theory of natural selection and can directly change the ecosystems leading to detrimental consequences.
Among the most important issues of the modern world are air and water pollution and soil depletion. People have used up all the resources available on this planet. The population of the world is rapidly growing, so does the need for food sources and medicine. Therefore, I believe that it is in humanity’s best interest to stimulate animal growth through genetic modifications instead of only relying on the nature of food resources.
Genetic modification implies adding or removing a gene that is responsible for a particular trait. It does not change the genetic code completely and can rarely cause mutations. I think that genetic modification of animals for the sake of the expected benefits is justifiable.
GM animals can significantly contribute to human’s quality of life with the input in medicine and science, reduce the problem of malnutrition, and prevent environmental pollution. For instance, scientists in Canada modified cows that produced less methane to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or in New Zealand, a cow was modified to produce milk without a protein that caused allergy. Thus, minor genetic modifications in animals can significantly improve the quality of life, without major harm to animals. Moreover, some endangered species could be preserved and repopulated with the help of genetic modification.
Developments in gene engineering and biotechnology are dramatically changing the environment surrounding us. Many genetic modification experiments on animals help humanity to advance health and the quality of life. Although today only GM salmon is considered safe, other GM animals have the potential to become available in the nearest future. It is likely that the benefits of genetically modified animals outweigh the risks.
Bawa, A. S., & Anilakumar, K. R. (2013). Genetically modified foods: safety, risks, and public concerns—A review. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 50(6), 1035–1046.
Biotechnology Innovation Organization. (n.d.). Genetically engineered animals. Web.
Lievens, A., Petrillo, M., Querci, M., & Patak, A. (2015). Genetically modified animals: Options and issues for traceability and enforcement. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 44(2), 159-176.
Oliviera, C., Aguiar, T.Q., & Domingues, L. (2016). Principles of genetic engineering. In A. Pandey & J.C. Teixeira (Eds.), Current developments in biotechnology and bioengineering: Foundations of biotechnology and bioengineering (pp.81-128). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier.
Ribeiro, T.G., Barone, B., & Behrens, J.H. (2016). Genetically modified foods and social representation. Food Research International, 84, 120-127.