In April 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick published a paper in “Nature” describing their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. In 2003 we are beginning to see the huge impact that the discovery has had on all our lives, in agriculture, medicine and the environment. Genetics is the scientific study of heredity and hereditary variation, the similarities passed from one generation to the next and the differences each offspring possess. Today genetics is at the centre of many of societies most crucial debates, from the safety of genetically modified foods to the ethics of designer babies. It has solved crimes due to the unique fingerprint DNA provides, brought cloning from the realm of science fiction with “Dolly the Sheep”, and will provide cures for genetic-related diseases.
Age-old questions about life are being answered and many aspects of how we understand the world around us are being transformed. Genetics and DNA scientific study is catalysing progress in every other biological field, physiology, evolutionary biology, ecology and behaviour. The impact of genetics research and development has been massive and therefore major ethical issues come with it. We can create new organisms and understand the patterns of diseases but with that power comes responsibility and risk.
The knowledge of DNA and genetics is adding immensely to the understanding of human health including the prevention and treatment of illnesses. The Human Genome Project was completed this year; it has enabled all the genes in human DNA to be identified and this information to be stored in public databases. It represents a significant advance in understanding the role of genetics in human health and disease. It is therefore possible that solutions to the shortage of organs for transplanting, personalised medicine and developments in cancer research can all be achieved. There is also research being done into individuals DNA sequence being stored on a plastic card.
Diseases are a consequence of tissue malformation or damage therefore by understanding how tissues work treatments can be developed or debilitating and lethal conditions rectified. The use of human tissues raises many ethical issues and in recent years has been the source of much dispute and controversy. The issue of consent particularly concerns many people. Legislation for family consent for organs to be removed during a hospital post mortem exam is unclear and now being comprehensively reviewed. It is necessary to strike an acceptable balance between rights and expectations of individuals and families and broader considerations such as the importance of transplantation research, education, training and public health surveillance to the population as a whole.
Genetics brings many more choices, it allows in the case of IVF treatment, medical intervention to overcome fertility, it enables pregnant women to be aware of any disabilities, giving them the chance to end a pregnancy. People could be given a foreknowledge of potential later ill health allowing them to seek treatment. But diagnostic power brings anxieties, responsibilities and consequences.
An infertile couple may have the moral dilemma “is this a step too far?” may spend thousands of pounds on the hope of a successful treatment and never receive a positive result. Foreknowledge of possible later ill health may bring unhappiness and possibly a requirement to tell third parties, bringing discrimination for insurance and employment. The ending of a wanted pregnancy can be distressing and stressful. Disabilities rights campaigners have claimed this aspect of modern genetics is a return of eugenic abuses of the first half of the 20th Century.
Genetically modified foods are a result of genetic engineering, cutting out specific DNA sections and transferring them into plant cells. This gives the plant advantages such as better taste, resistance to disease and increased yield. Although many people have eaten GM products such as tomato puree and soya, concerns about the safety of GM products occurred in 1999 with the research into GM potatoes. As with all aspects of genetic research, there are benefits and concerns. Global hunger could be solved as more crops could tolerate frost, drought and salty soils. There would be less use of pesticides as crops can be resistant to insects, weeds and diseases.
Genes improving nitrogen uptake would mean less need of chemical fertilisers, lessening the environmental threat. Consumer benefits include improved flavour and better keeping qualities. But are these safe? These new gene combinations may have unknown effects. Has there been enough research carried out on the chances of harmful substances being reproduced? Environment safety has also been questioned; pollen from GM crops resistant to weed killers may be transferred to other plants, thus making weeds resistant. Animal welfare will come into question with any developments in animal production. Biodiversity will be reduced with few companies controlling plant breeding and farming structure may change with larger farms that are more capital-intensive affecting smaller farms.
DNA is essential to all living things and is therefore a part of all aspects of our world. DNA studies can help protect and improve the environment but can also be damaging by man made environmental changes. At the moment there are no clear links between genes, air pollution, exposures and the development of disease. There are a number of genes, which may be important in determining air pollution effects.
So it is possible that those genes responsible for severity of disease may be those that in time prove to be important in determining response to air pollution. Recent climatic shifts have led to concern over the impact of this change on biodiversity. The effects of Radiation will also be able to be determined through the application of studies on DNA and genomics, providing a fuller understanding of the fundamentals of cellular physiology.
What ever we do in life DNA affects us. We are living in a revolution in which genetics and DNA sciences are transforming many aspects of how we understand the world around us. It is important that there is open dialogue and education about the basis of science and implications of science. Morals and ethics will be very important in deciding how far we take the scientific research into our lives. Science presents us with a challenge.