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Ethical Issues With Transgenic Organisms

Biology (Year 12) - Biotechnology: Applications

Ben Whitten

What are the major ethical issues associated with transgenic organisms?

Gene technology is an umbrella term with many connotations; on one hand, it reflects the many advances in science and modern technologies which have enabled modern society to increase levels of efficiency and yield in terms of a number of products and aspects of life; on the other hand, however, the implications of gene technology and the issues associated with the applications must be considered in decisions regarding what should and should not be done.

There are four main areas of concern with the use of transgenic organisms.

  1. Effects on non-target organisms

  2. Rapid evolution of pesticide resistance

  3. Emergence of superweeds

  4. Reduction of genetic diversity

Effects on non-target organisms

Transgenic organisms have been engineered to perform a number of tasks, for example producing and secreting different chemicals and toxins to deter predators; the only issue with this, however, is that non-target organisms will be impacted. If these transgenic organisms are consumed by humans, leading to gene transfer into the somatic cells of the body or bacteria in the GI tract, this may pose an issue if the genetic material adversely affects human health, i.e. antibiotic-resistant genes would put humans at harm. Outcrossing is another concern, regarding the migration of genes from genetically-modified plants into conventional crops or to related species in the wild, and this may have an indirect effect on food safety and security.

Rapid evolution of pesticide resistance

Some transgenic organisms have been shown to have an increased level of pesticide resistance, at a much faster rate in comparison to natural crops. This has also led to surrounding plants developing pesticide resistance via natural selection, leading to farmers using more of the chemical to kill weeds and protect crops. Herbicide-resistant engineered transgenic organisms may evolve quickly with the limiting factors for growth removed; if an adverse condition was removed from the environment of these crops, the growth rate could be much higher meaning the crop would become a pest, outcompeting native plants, depleting the soil of nutrients and decreasing biodiversity.

Emergence of superweeds

Gene flow of transgenic crop plants may occur when genes transfer to other species through wind or contaminated tools, meaning the introduced gene may be transferred. The introduced gene may have been selected for herbicide resistance, pest resistance or drought resistance. The newly modified species may be transformed to begin expressing the gene, assisting it to increase its growth rate and become a pest/weed. Farmers may lack the ability to control the growth of this type of weed, a 'superweed'.

Reduction of genetic diversity

By using transgenic crops, this could have the potential to lead to a loss of genetic diversity; usually, farmers will plant a single crop that has a desired gene into its genome (a monoculture). The favourable characteristic introduced may assist with enhancing survival of a specific factor, however the gene pool is limited for surviving other changes in its environment. Due to a low level of genetic diversity, a new pest or disease emerging means that there is a higher chance of the plant species dying out.

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