By: Jim Virkler
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) elicit profound fear in many areas of the world. Foods produced by genetic modification are shunned and outlawed in many countries, even though there have been no documented cases of nutritional harm from human consumption of genetically modified foods or food products. Many optimistic promises of GMOs have been substantially fulfilled. As with any revolutionary technology there are a few legitimate questions. Many scientists are distressed by the slow pace of legal resolution of concerns about GMOs. Some relate to ethical dimensions of human induced horizontal gene transfer (HGT). In nature HGT has occurred as the transfer of DNA genetic material from one species to another, mostly in primitive life forms. Artificial HGT has been accomplished by scientists in the last few decades using novel biotechnology. This is the basis of the GMO phenomenon.
A different procedure on the genetic editing front raises hopes for success of bio-engineering to an ever higher level. A few years ago new technologies were developed which may be described as a form of genetic modification, lately becoming known as genetic editing. Following is a quote by Jacob Bunge and Amy Marcus from the Wall Street Journal of 4/16/18. The article, “Battle Grows Over Gene-edited Food,” expresses both the hopes and fears inherent in the newest biotechnology techniques: “The new gene-editing technologies enable scientists to achieve some of the same effects by altering the plant’s own DNA, without inserting new genes. With Crispr-Cas9 the most widely used system, scientists can program genetic guides to target a location along the plant’s DNA, where the Cas9 protein cuts the DNA. The cells change the DNA sequence as the cut is repaired. Scientists are using Crispr to make drought resistant corn, reduced-gluten wheat, and tomatoes with easy to remove stems.”
Curious people marvel about processes at the sub-microscopic level where these wonders occur. There are about one trillion cells in our bodies. Each cell contains a nucleus containing 46 chromosomes, each one containing DNA macro-molecules with billions of atoms. Electron microscopes enable us to “see” molecular structure.
Several years ago bio-scientists began applying knowledge they had acquired from observing the manner in which bacteria resist viruses that attacked them. They used the same strategy in more advanced plants and animals to genetically edit the organisms’ genomes in order to give them new traits. Antonio Regaldo, senior editor of MIT Technology Review writes, “Bacteria collect and store snippets of DNA from viruses that have invaded them, splicing the segments out through their own genome in a pattern called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – the language that gives CRISPR its acronym.” The bacteria use the virus’s DNA to create cutting enzymes called nucleases which splice the DNA at the desired place. Scientists in the last few years have shown that this natural bacterial immune process can be repurposed to work in humans in order to target and delete specific genes including those which cause deleterious inherited diseases or aging.
Bio-scientists could delete, add, modify, insert, or replace a gene at the position where the “nuclear scissors” snipped out the unwanted gene from the original DNA sequence. Supporters of the CRISPR process claim it is more “natural” than the process used by GMOs which incorporate genetic material from a different species.
Our knowledge and application of CRISPR technology is still preliminary but potential for the well-being of humanity in the future is high indeed. Many benefits from GMOs and gene editing already astound us. The technology of gene editing is moving very quickly. In 10, 50, or 100 years if Christ has not returned, we predict the world will be very different. Will most diseases be conquered? Could reduced suffering, enhanced diet, and extended patterns of aging cause man to draw closer to God? Or instead, will humanity feel an increased sense of self-empowerment?
Our scientific knowledge has multiplied beyond belief since the days when our grandparents and great-grandparents were young people and adults. We contemplate whether righteousness has increased or diminished. Should the vast knowledge proliferation heighten or reduce personal and collective worship of the Creator of All Things? Our answer should be driven by thoughtful introspection.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.