As the basis for all life in the universe, the potential for engineering genes to enhance the human condition is vast. When scientists modify the genes of plants, animals, and bacteria — in addition to other, extremely small organisms — they're uncovering nature "hacks" to suit the needs of society. Or are they?
The specificity of genetic engineering can cause disastrous consequences. What works for one species may irreversibly harm another, and using genetic engineering for commercial purposes can give some nations or companies outsized economic advantages over smaller ones who can't foot the bill. The ethical question of whether humans should modify nature on the genetic level also puts the entire notion into question.
Benefits of genetic engineering
There are seemingly endless benefits to genetic engineering. As of writing, researchers have linked DNA errors to nearly 7,000 diseases — and genetic engineering could serve as a "spell-check" on errors to prevent harmful illness.
One simple yet powerful tool for modifying genomes is CRISPR — which enables researchers to change DNA sequences and alter gene function. Also called CRISPR-Cas9, the technique functions like a pair of molecular scissors, with the precision to cut disparate strands of DNA.
Adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria and archaea, CRISPR can stymy attacks from viruses and more — via slicing the genes of invaders. But regardless of CRISPR's promise, it's not the only positive force in gene editing.
Selective weed control
The agricultural industry reaps great benefits from genetic modification. For example, if we can modify the genes of crops, this could help to reduce the ongoing issue of world hunger.
Additionally, the use of herbicides has well-known links to damaging the ozone layer and climate change. But introducing herbicide resistance into crops would reduce the need for such high volumes to be used — resulting in an enhanced capacity to selectively kill weeds.
Sterilizing pests could limit spread of deadly diseases
Wild masses of locusts have swarmed across the middle east in the last several years — but engineering insect and pest resistance in plants could cause plants to produce toxins — dissuading insects from eating the crop.
Scientists could even create new versions of insects to control their population. For example, as global climate change worsens, the population of mosquitos in southern states of the U.S. and in equatorial regions is exploding, and moving northward every decade.
However, if we introduced sterile mosquitos into the population — they could breed infertile offspring, controlling the spread of major diseases like dengue fever, malaria, and the Zika virus.
Corporate GMOs can lead to negative outcomes
However tempting the benefits of genetic engineering are, the risks can appear greater. Introducing changes to crops generally could risk harming some plants less suited to the changes than others.
When corporations using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) aren't heavily regulated, there's a possibility that bad actors in the organization could strategically apply pressure on vulnerable economic parties, and reshape agricultural realities of entire populations without the consent of the people.
Continued evaluation of genetic engineering rollout
And some of them are adamant that using genetic engineering interferes with the natural progress of life on Earth, raising an ethical question that's difficult to work out in the rapid advance of new technologies in multiple industries.
From expensive rollouts and irreversible genetic damage to fighting world hunger and curing major diseases, genetic engineering comes as a mixed bag for both proponents and those who find it unsavory. But since it already pervades the modern world, we'll have to continually monitor and evaluate the risks and benefits as new innovations and threats arise.