Week 6 – “Biotech” by Derek Spitters

Biotechnology has become a very controversial issue in today’s society, but when one weighs the benefits of this expanding branch of science against its possible consequences, it becomes clear that the positive aspects of this technology greatly outweigh its inherent risks. One of the largest applications of biotechnology is genetically modified food. There are a couple of ways that food can be modified for our benefit. Different species of plants can be crossbred in order to incorporate the best attributes of each into a new crop. Another way to genetically modify food is to use radiation to induce mutation of the plant’s DNA. Genetic mutation occurs naturally in all organisms as a part of evolution. Scientists can speed up this process by provoking mutation and thereafter selecting for breeding the plants that display desirable characteristics, such as drought resistance or nutritional benefits. Gene therapy can also be used to create new and useful organisms. This process involves taking DNA sequences from one plant or animal and inserting them into the DNA of another, thus transferring certain traits to the recipient.

Many people are afraid of the implications of genetically modified crops, and although their beliefs are not completely unfounded, the risks of this technology are highly manageable. The biggest risk of this facet of biotechnology is the possible damages it could have on an ecosystem. Our planet’s delicate natural environments have developed over a period of billions of years, and when scientists introduce new organisms into this environment, there is always the possibility of unforeseen consequences. These effects can be countered by careful testing before any genetically modified crops are used on a widespread scale. Other people have qualms about eating these foods themselves. What they need to realize is that there is nothing unnatural about this process. Scientists are simply accelerating a process that occurs in nature. Additionally, it is not as if this process is relatively new. Admittedly, some aspects such as gene therapy are recent advancements, but genetically modified crops have been around for years. For example, Native Americans engineered the cultivation of corn. The original forms of corn are almost unrecognizable to us today.

Hunger is a real problem in our world today, and biotechnology looks like a promising answer for many starving populations. Crops can be modified to increase yield and to make them more nutritious. They can be engineered to last longer and to stay ripe and fresh. One example of a crop that has benefitted from genetic modification is rice. Since rice is the most important crop of the developing world and is a staple food for over two billion people, it has been the subject of much research. An example of the ways in which it has been modified is the addition of the ferritin  gene, which increases iron content. Areas with iron deficiency can use this crop to supplement their diet. (http://www.agbioforum.org/v7n12/v7n12a06-datta.htm)

Another interesting area of biotechnology is cloning. This issue is even more controversial than genetically modified foods. Recent advancements in cloning look promising, but there are still many problems as well. The most significant problem with cloning is accelerated aging. This idea is explored in popular culture as well. The main character of the popular video game series Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake, is a clone. In the fourth installment of the series, accelerated aging has caught up with Snake. His body is deteriorating, and there is nothing he can do about it. This series also explores other ideas in biotechnology. In the first installment, “Genome Soldiers” were genetically modified to have enhanced senses and to resist the effects of a cold environment. Although this series also sometimes deals with the seemingly supernatural, one of its main theme is to raise questions about emergent technologies.

Solid Snake – Age 33

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Solid Snake – Age 42 (after effects of accelerated aging)

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–Derek Spitters

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