Concerns Regarding DNA Technologies

Advent of any new technology should bring scrutiny over the safety and efficacy of the procedures. When recombinant DNA technologies first allowed the cloning of genes over two decades ago, controversies swirled about their use and possible abuse. Even the scientists who developed the technologies were concerned about potential dangers in gene cloning. In response, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) formed the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) to develop a set of guidelines for conducting research that involved recombinant DNA techniques and gene cloning. Today, we are enjoying the fruits of many of those technologies, as evidenced by the list of commercially available products in table 9.2. Despite the fact that the technologies can be used to produce life-saving products, however, there can never be a guarantee that the same techniques will not be used for malicious purposes. Today, the idea that "superbugs'' are being created for the purpose of bioterrorism is a disturbing possibility.

Recent advances in genomics have generated new cause for concern, primarily involving ethical issues regarding the appropriateness and confidentiality of information gained by analyzing a person's DNA. For example, will it be in an individual's best interest to be told of a genetic life-terminating disease? Could such information be used to deny an individual cer tain rights and privileges? Ongoing discussions about these complex issues must continue as the technologies advance.

Genetically modified (GM) organisms hold many promises, but the debate over their use is fraught with concerns, some logical and others not. For example, some people have expressed fear over the fact that GM foods "contain DNA''; considering that DNA is consumed routinely as we eat plants and animals, this is obviously an irrational concern. More reasonable fears include the worry that unanticipated allergens could be introduced into a food product, posing a threat to the health of some people. To address this issue, the FDA has implemented strict guidelines, including the requirement for producers to demonstrate that GM products intended for human consumption do not elicit allergic reactions. Thus far, no allergens resulting from genetic engineering have been released into the food supply. Mistakes, however, such as the inadvertent use of GM corn that had not been approved for human consumption as an ingredient in tortilla chips, continue to fuel apprehension about the regulatory control over GM products. Another concern about GM products is their possible unintended effects on the environment. For example, some laboratory studies have shown that pollen from plants that have been genetically modified to produce Bt toxin have inadvertently killed monarch butterflies; other studies, however, have refuted the evidence. In addition, there are indications that herbicide-resistance genes can be transferred to other plants, decreasing the usefulness of the herbicide. As with any new technology, the impact of GM organisms should continue to be carefully scrutinized to hopefully avoid any negative consequences.

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