The first report of transgenic mice derived from microinjected embryos was published in 1980. Since that time many other animals such as pigs, goats, sheep, and cows have joined the ranks of complex organisms whose natural genetic endowment has been supplemented in this fashion with genes from widely diverse organisms. Other ingenious transgenic methods besides microinjection have been developed as research and commercial laboratories across the world continue to expand the horizons of transgenics.
All of these techniques have in common a unique phenomenon -- the meeting and mixing of genes from organisms which had been separated by millions or sometimes even billions of years of evolution. All of the barriers to sexual reproduction between organisms whose ancestors had long since diverged along vastly different pathways could now be breached by delivering new genes directly to a recipient's chromosomes.
Creation of new life forms is now possible, forms which could never arise by the slow, random process of mutation, sexual recombination, and natural selection. Even genes from the various kingdoms of life can be combined -- plants, animals, microbes -- into combinations limited only by the current crop of isolated genes, the ingenuity of researchers, and the availability of methods of predictable, efficient gene transfer.
But why do we want to do this at all? Are there any good reasons to alter at such a fundamental level what appears to be the "natural" order of things? Who could benefit from such manipulations and in what way? Are there any objections to what scientists are doing as they continue to fashion these unlikely and unprecedented hybrids?
The reasons for transgenic manipulation are embedded in the fundamental aims of science -- understanding and control. Human nature is marked by a burning curiosity about the world around us. Scientists are fortunate in being able to indulge this curiosity as a way of life. But modern science and medicine move beyond the familiar generalities of "scientific curiosity" and "expanding the horizons" of our knowledge to enter the sometimes problematic arena of manipulation of that knowledge for our own ends.
Welcome examples of control over nature are numerous. We have discovered that insulin regulates the entrance of sugar into our cells. With that information in hand we can control the sugar level in the blood of a person with diabetes by insulin injections. Biologists have synthesized the gaseous hormones released by female gypsy moths, and have used the tempting odors to lure the males of the species to their deaths, sparing trees from destructive defoliation. The discovery, isolation, and mass production of antibiotics, naturally occurring chemicals found to inhibit bacterial growth, has saved countless lives. Such examples are obviously the fruits of scientific discoveries.
Few would argue against the exercise of the scientific curiosity leading to research aimed at alleviating so much of the suffering to which humans have been subjected for most of our history. However, now that modern molecular science has led to intrusions which can affect the innermost control centers of living organisms and alter their very genes, such manipulations often evoke at the least a vague unease, a feeling that we are perhaps going too far. . .
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