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The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

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Designer Lifestyles and Genetic Engineering

Posted September 06, 2007 12:00 AM by Sharkles

Imagine growing up knowing that you were born for one purpose: to be a perfect match for your sibling. Since your sibling is very ill, you've been genetically engineered to be an exact match so that your blood, bone marrow, and organs can be taken and "donated" to save the life of your sister. Although this is the fictional plot of My Sister's Keeper, a book by Jodi Picoult, that I'd read recently, advances in technology have made this scenario a possibility. After thinking about this hypothetical situation, some people would like to believe that they wouldn't object to being born to save a sibling's life. Others would argue that engineering a child for this purpose is morally wrong.

Human genetic engineering is a controversial topic because it tugs on the emotions of many people. In 2001 the United States House of Representatives passed a bill than banned genetic engineering for cloning in reproduction and medical purposes. Genetic engineering occurs in a laboratory setting where scientists change the DNA of living organisms. As you may remember from high school biology class, DNA serves as the "blueprint" for living organisms.

In human genetic engineering changes in DNA are made in the earliest stage of child development: the embryonic stage. Today, there are two types of human genetic engineering, somatic and germline. Somatic genetic engineering focuses on the genes of specific organs and tissues. In short, somatic engineering is changing something within an existing person, without changing the composition of their sperm or eggs. Unlike somatic engineering, germline genetic engineering focuses on early human forms, in the embryonic stage. These changes affect the embryo throughout its entire life as a human and are passed to future generations.

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003, the benefits of genetic engineering have been visible in headlines everywhere. As you may remember, the HGP was a project that aimed to identify all of the genes in human DNA. It also determined the sequences of base-pairs that comprise human DNA. Their aim was to provide scientists with tools that would allow them to understand genetic diseases.

Thanks to HGP, there are now more than 1,000 tests for genetic disorders and diseases. Researches created a "HapMap", a catalog of common genetic variations and their associations with certain genetic diseases. Because of the HGP, scientists now have a deeper understanding of DNA, patients have been treated with gene therapy, and pregnant women can screen fetuses for genetic defects. These are only a few of the many benefits of genetic engineering, as reported by the media.

Critics claim that there will be social and political ramifications if human genetic engineering becomes widespread. In addition to posing religious arguments, people worry that genetic engineering will have negative effects on a child throughout life. Critics of human engineering also claim that the child will come to feel dehumanized and experience the feelings of identity loss. Other opposing voices say that moving forward with human genetic engineering would cause a wave of "designer babies". This fear of humanity becoming nothing more than another man-made object is making people wonder if genetically-altered children are just the first step in creating a Brave New World.

Currently, many countries have banned human genetic engineering. But who knows what will happen when the world's leaders and administrations change?

Unlike some of my other blog entries, I don't have a set opinion on this topic. Still, here's what I want to know:

  • If we moved forward with human genetic engineering, would there be a way to screen out people who are just looking to make cuter babies?
  • In My Sister's Keeper, the genetically-engineered child didn't want be a donor for her sister. Since young children are not allowed to make their own medical decisions, how could we protect their interests?
  • If human genetic engineering was solely somatic, would it be as controversial?

So, what do you think?

Resources:
http://www.allaboutpopularissues.org/human-genetic-engineering.htm
http://www.allaboutpopularissues.org/benefits-of-human-genetic-engineering-faq.htm
http://www.arhp.org/patienteducation/onlinebrochures/cloning/index.cfm?ID=282
http://www.nih.gov/about/researchresultsforthepublic/HumanGenomeProject.pdf
http://www.emagazine.com/view/?112
http://www.huxley.net/
http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/GEessays/gedanger.htm#GEHB
http://www.safe-food.org/-issue/ge.html

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Commentator

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#1

Re: Designer Lifestyles and Genetic Engineering

09/06/2007 3:40 PM

Strangely coincidental here, but I just finished watching an anime that sort of touches upon this subject. To sum it up, Earth has essentially decided to use colonists that it originally sent to other planets for their own "parts." The gene pool was stagnating, so they put people on certain planets where they would be harvested for various things, like skin, reproductive organs, etc. Of course, the series follows certain individuals who have decided to rise up against Earth, because they decided it was unjust to have been "volunteered" for this harvest.

I haven't read My Sister's Keeper, but I thought it was an interesting parallel.

Not really sure how much genetic engineering I would agree with. On one hand, I enthusiastically support genetic testing for disorders and diseases. On the other, I think it is ridiculous to create designer babies just because we can. (Anybody who watched Star Trek:Deep Space 9 can remember the controversy surrounding genetically enhanced individuals like Dr. Bashir.)

Ok, I'll stop relating current controversial issues to sci-fi and anime. 8^)

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#2

Re: Designer Lifestyles and Genetic Engineering

09/07/2007 1:09 AM

I want to read the book My Sister's Keeper. Genetic Engineering would be nice. I watched one time in Discovery Channel regarding this. This is good when the sole reason is to prevent diseases and abnormalities. This can also improve the human species.

Do you not want to live in a world where everyone is intelligent and cute? Where there are no more disable humans and everyone seems perfect.

Wow, that must be a bit of heaven here on Earth.

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#3

Re: Designer Lifestyles and Genetic Engineering

09/07/2007 1:13 AM

If you are a perfect match then you would have the same flaw. If they can fix it in the match then the same is true for the original. Accident parts replacement is very possible though.

Brad

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#4

Re: Designer Lifestyles and Genetic Engineering

09/07/2007 7:36 AM

very interesting post, and conversation. Thanks to Kate for starting this.

I have to agree that the human issues, emotional and otherwise are so complex as to render this an issue of controversy right up there with right to life / right to choice, and I would prefer this science were explored slowly with much deliberation.

Unfortunately, like so many other technologies in human development, the "genie is out of the bottle".

All it will take is for some "rogue" country to realize that they can create soldiers with muscles that are both strong AND fast, have a metabolism that functions at twice the rate (with half the life expectancy, but reflexes twice as fast), whose subdermal layers are twice as dense as leather, who are impervious to pain and are absolutely loyal and suddenly all of the countries who have "banned" genetic engineering will be faced with a choice of either doing their own programs or using nukes.

banning guns only means that the criminals will have guns....

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#5

Re: Designer Lifestyles and Genetic Engineering

09/07/2007 8:58 AM

I have to say that I'm totally against creating a human life for replacement parts. If anything, I'd be more "OK" with growing "parts-on-demand" where they could grab a few cells and grow you a heart if needed. I guess eventually, it could come to that. I wouldn't buy a new car to fix my old one....

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#6

Re: Designer Lifestyles and Genetic Engineering

09/07/2007 10:07 AM

Sharkles (should I be familiar and call you Kate?),

It is clear to me that you enjoy science fiction. I like to call some science fiction science faction since it is sometimes based on actual science as it is understood at its time of composition, i.e., the logical mind at work.

With your discussion of the good and bad of genetic engineering, may I point out the work being done today with Nanotechnology. It seems that the nano-tools can manipulate the genome, DNA, and RNA. It looks like we are on the threshold of some wonderful discoveries, including a cure for cancer, smart prosthetics, in situ DNA repair, mind-computer interface, etc., all in the Jake II framework.

What you propose would make an interesting literary study. Have at it gal, you might see yourself as the author of a great TV scifi series. BTW, I use references to both genetic engineering and nanotechnology in "Alien Reports".

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#7

Re: Designer Lifestyles and Genetic Engineering

09/21/2007 12:07 AM

Have you seen "The Island"? It raises the very interesting question: if human cloning is possible, should the rich be allowed to clone themselves so that they can harvest the clone for spare parts if needed? And what about the clones themselves? Are they considered humans in their own right, with all the attendant human rights entitled to them, or they merely merchandise, as the cloning company regards them? I'm sure you'll have a field day contemplating these questions.

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: Designer Lifestyles and Genetic Engineering

09/21/2007 11:34 AM

DVader1000 (Darth?!)-- very interesting post.

I haven't seen The Island yet, but it sounds like something I would be interested in. You've definitely got me thinking. I think that the reason human cloning hasn't gone forth yet is because of questions like the ones you've mentioned. In my humble opinion, I would say that if the clones were exact copies and could think, feel, and function as the original human, then they should be considered humans in their own right.

My question regarding the movie is, are the clones created from genetic material and then created in a lab and birthed? Because if they were then I would argue that it isn't that much different than couples who cannot conceive conventionally. These couples rely on labs and artificial insemination to create life. So, if clones were created in this same way I would argue that they should be considered human lives, just genetically engineered. I know a lot of people may disagree, but I feel that these clones (if I am accurate in how they are created) are entitled to the same human rights as any other person.

I am going to have to rent this so I can comment further because I am sure it's going to occupy my mind until I can form a complete opinion.

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