Genetics

Have Breakthroughs in Dna Research Led to more Harm than Good – No



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"Have Breakthroughs in Dna Research Led to more Harm than Good - No"
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The tendency is to think about genetic studies in the short term and understandably so, but I think it's important to remember that, as humans, this is our one advantage in our environment, at least for the time being, and to forgo its use is evolutionary suicide.
Humans cannot compete at the organismic level with bacteria. It simply cannot happen. Bacteria and the viruses they produce evolve much more quickly than any metazoan does because each daughter cell is a new generation and a new possibility for change. Though our immune systems are relatively well adapted it is only a matter of time before the next super-bug evolves and is capable of wiping out 1/3 of a population (ala the plague). Until now our only defense is our modest diversity, and with recent human genome data (albeit contested) showing that humans are roughly 99.99% genetically identical, our diversity won't stand up for too long!
So, with that in mind, it becomes painfully clear just how important biological and genetic studies really are - I really can't stress the importance enough. This sounds like an overly dramatic doomsday scenario, but, statistically speaking, it is actually likely that humans will become extinct. Every species in existence thus far has ultimately met its end somehow, but as far as we know, there have not been any species with a prefrontal cortex capable of deciphering themselves at the genetic level. This is our one, our only tool to defend against what we absolutely cannot defend against physiologically.
In the short term, there is always a learning curve - that length of time where we learn why some things aren't working and why other things have bizarre side effects; why tetraploid strawberries don't taste as good as the originals, why we seem to be radically warping the biodiversity in a local ecosystem, how genetically engineered hormones in cows' milk might lead to an earlier onset of puberty in the population, or why the rate of HIV (and other STD's) is rapidly growing in seniors' nursing homes after the introduction and aggressive marketing of Viagra and Cialis. These are, of course, some of the deleterious effects associated with harnessing this incredible power, and some side effects are more dramatic than others: the ineffable tragedy inherent in a mother and father's decision to terminate a pregnancy based on genetic data that the child will be born with a horrible disease if allowed to come to term is surely among the worst.
At the end of the day, though, we will iron these problems out and refine our understanding so as to cause as little damage as possible. The payouts of genetic studies in Humans are already becoming evident: according to recent health insurance research (United Healthcare), one of the fastest growing groups of people in the United States (by percentage) is people living to be 100 years old (coincidentally, a recent study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that this strengthening of general health is also strongly contributing to our economy with returns several times greater than initial investments). Besides helping us to identify diseases early, a clear, genetic understanding of a disease frequently presages its treatment. In October of 2006, for example, NIH researchers successfully reprogrammed T-cells to attack and destroy metastatic cancer cells (Science October 2006). Short term or long term, curing cancer is a pretty weighty measuring stick to assess the benefits. Ultimately, though, I don't think anything short of totally annihilating ourselves could do enough harm to negate the potential benefits of genetic studies!

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More about this author: Jonathon Keeney

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