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Some of the most promising techniques have stepped beyond sophisticated breeding and culturing techniques to employ the very machinery of life itself to enhance production. Genetic engineering techniques have allowed researchers to insert genes from wholly unrelated species to alter life cycles and enhance disease resistance for a variety of aquatic species.

Other techniques involve the development of DNA vaccines and genetically altered bacteria to assist aquacultural development. These and other transformations of life through biotechnology have been pursued for the sake of the social benefits they promise. Cheaper and more effective medicines are possible when produced through biological rather than chemical means.

Farm production can be made more efficient and the use of biological pesticides, for instance, can reduce the need for chemical pesticides. Some genetic engineering of plants aims to reduce the need for fertilizers, thereby minimizing the pollution effects of runoff to rivers and coastal waters. One of the first applications of a genetically engineered organism was the modification of bacteria that could digest oil spilled in the oceans.

Bioremediation and, in general, the improvement of the environment have been the primary aims of a great deal of biotechnological research. In the marine context, much of the scientific work being done is aimed at ameliorating the effects on food species and marine ecosystems of overdevelopment, pollution, and loss of breeding habitats.

While biotechnological methods promise a variety of important social and environmental benefits, public response, especially to the release of genetically modified species into the environment, has been mixed. Though not always based on a sound understanding of the science and technologies involved, the public is wary of genetically altered foods and concerned about the inability to control biological agents once they are released into the environment.

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The ethical evaluation of biotechnological interventions rests first upon a good understanding of the science behind these interventions, and second upon balancing the risks and benefits such interventions pose. In addition, the power of new molecular techniques to manipulate life, insert the genes of one species into the genes of another species, and otherwise redirect living organisms both in captivity and in the wild to specific human purposes, raises questions about the proper role of humans in their environment and in the alteration of living organisms.

What are some of the risks associated with biotechnology and how are they balanced against the benefits they promise? What are some of the fundamental objections to genetic engineering and the role of biotechnology in general environmental ethics? This essay will review the types of objections and questions that have been raised about biotechnology in general but will not necessarily provide answers.

As biologists explore the increasing power of science to manipulate life, it is important that they are aware of the kinds of arguments that question their practice. How those arguments are addressed requires both a good scientific understanding of the particular details of an intervention, and public moral and political deliberation. Part of that deliberation is to answer these questions and to understand the objections and the different types and models of moral reasoning.

Risks and Benefits An essential element in the ethical evaluation of biotechnology is the analysis of the possible harms and their likelihood of occurring, weighing these risks against the probable benefits. Since biotechnology encompasses a wide variety of biological methods and techniques in a wide variety of circumstances, the analysis of the risks and benefits will be highly contextual, depending upon the peculiarities of each specific application.

For instance, the use of genetically engineered bacteria to produce insulin in a commercial laboratory is quite different from the release of genetically engineered bacteria into the natural environment. Conditions can be controlled in the laboratory and, with appropriate safety measures, the modified bacteria can be prevented from escaping. But the release of a genetically engineered species into the environment poses additional risks depending on the viability of the organism, the nature of its genetic modification, and the purpose for which it is introduced.

This discussion will be confined to the principles that may apply to the ethical evaluation of biotechnology in general, recognizing that the ethical evaluation of each particular intervention will depend upon its specific circumstances. Adequate assessment of the risks of releasing a genetically modified species into the environment entails a thorough knowledge of the ecology of the environment and how the modified species will interact with other species.

Proposals for the introduction of genetically modified species into the environment have been criticized on the grounds that there is insufficient ecological knowledge and that, in general, the science of predictive ecology is underfunded and poorly understood. Even in individual species, it is difficult to predict the health effects of inserting foreign DNA into an organism or otherwise modifying the expression of genes it already contains.

A number of deleterious pleiotropic effects where one gene can effect several traits have been shown to occur in genetically modified species. In fact, the only way to determine these effects is through experiments upon individual organisms, a fact not lost upon animal welfare advocates. Evaluation of the effects of genetic engineering on individual organisms can be conducted in the safety of the lab, but the impacts of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment may be very difficult to measure or model experimentally.

Ultimately, the safety of transgenic organisms can only be evaluated through careful study of their release into the environment, with the consequent risk that we will discover a cascade of harmful effects on the environment only after it is too late to stop the spread of the organism.

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The ecology of environments is highly complex and relational. Individual species can play a variety of roles within an environment and the effects of a change in a species can be highly unpredictable. The problem is not simply inadequate knowledge but rather the complexity of ecological systems. Complex systems, in general, may be highly nonlinear, meaning that there may be little or no correlation between incremental changes in a system and how it behaves.

In mathematical models of complex systems, the effects of changes in a system are, in principle, unpredictable. The only way to discover these effects is to observe how the system behaves upon the introduction of a specific change.

The New Biology Law, Ethics, and Biotechnology

Modifications to a system can have no effect, an incremental effect, or revolutionary effects. To the extent that ecological, and more generally, organic systems are complex and nonlinear, modifications of them will, in principle, be unpredictable. Since adequate risk assessment depends upon prediction and quantification of risk, the effects of the introduction of new or modified species into an ecosystem may not be adequately quantifiable or manageable, making each such introduction truly experimental.

The lessons learned from the endangered species program are valuable in this context. Biologists have learned that in order to save a species, it is necessary to save its habitat. We might postulate a biotechnology corollary to this principle: Altering a species may alter its habitat, even if you do not know exactly how. The complexity of ecological systems makes it very difficult to identify specific causes of environmental change, and since one may not be able to anticipate specific changes, it is possible that scientific observation will fail to detect them.

Without the development of a much richer general science of ecology, and specific ecological studies of the environments into which biotechnology is introduced, adequate risk assessment may be impossible. It follows, then, that in the absence of adequate ecological study before biotechnological interventions take place, and in the absence of a commitment to long-term study after they have been introduced, the ethical evaluation of risks and benefits is incomplete. Proceeding on the basis of inadequate study may be unethical.

One especially troubling risk of the introduction of genetically engineered species into the environment is the possibility that the modified genes will cross to other species. This problem is most characteristic of plants and microbes, especially bacteria.

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It is also possible that genetically modified viruses may target unexpected species, spreading either deleterious or beneficial genes in unexpected ways. A related risk is the short generation time and potentially rapid evolution of microbes. If a genetically altered microbe persists in the environment, it is possible that it may evolve in unforeseen ways, producing unforeseen effects. Controlling the spread of genetically engineered species in the environment is also difficult, especially in the marine context where individual organisms can be quickly spread to vast areas by ocean currents.

In addition to the unpredictability associated with introducing new or modified species into the environment, harmful effects may be irremediable. Once a genetic modification has hopped to another species, there is little that biologists can do to effectively contain the spread of the gene. Once disrupted in this fashion, the ecological balance may be irrevocably altered, to the detriment of the ecosystem and its associated benefits to humans.

One promising method for protecting marine environments against the adverse consequences of introducing genetically modified species of fish has been to limit the reproductive capabilities of the fish. In this way, adverse ecological impacts may be reversed by discontinuing the release of the modified species. Managing Risks There are two ways in which risks can be managed.

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They are reflected in the differing approaches to biotechnology taken by Americans and Europeans. Faced with an entirely new entity in our lives, Americans may ask, "What is the likelihood that this will do me more good than harm? This is a risk-benefit approach, and it comes naturally for Americans. On the other hand, Europeans might ask, "Has this item been shown to be safe, so we don't have to worry about serious unforeseen problems down the line?

A risk-benefit approach thus requires that a product or practice is shown to be unsafe before it is ruled out, whereas a precautionary approach requires that safety be demonstrated before the product or practice is admitted. The United States has consistently favored commercial interests over environmental concerns until it can be demonstrated that a particular practice is unsafe for humans.

A notable exception to the risk-benefit approach is the Food and Drug Administration's FDA process for granting approval for medical drugs and devices. The FDA takes a precautionary approach, requiring that a sponsor demonstrate safety and efficacy prior to marketing a product. So far, the FDA has refused to assert jurisdiction over genetically engineered foods. The U. These regulations apply only to commercial research and development of transgenic microbial species.

Under this act, the EPA must operate under the risk-benefit approach and is required to meet a substantial burden of proof before it can even request data on a particular organism or before it can regulate or prohibit the production and release of microorganisms. This patchwork of Federal regulatory authorities covering biotechnology is confusing and inefficient. The public interest would be better served by a single office or agency responsible for evaluating the variety of biotechnological interventions and their impact on the environment.

While the appropriate balance of environmental and health concerns against economic benefits is fundamentally a political and ethical question, there is a serious flaw in the risk-benefit approach favored in the U. The benefits of a particular biotechnological intervention in the environment typically accrue directly to the sponsor, often a commercial interest.

However, the harms that may result from such interventions typically do not remain confined to those interests or the individuals responsible for introducing them, but instead may propagate throughout the environment and affect the general public. However, is knowing all of our DNA a good thing?


The advancement of biotechnology has raised many interesting ethical, legal and social questions. Imagine someone analyzes part of your DNA.

Who controls that information? What if your health insurance company found out you were predisposed to develop a devastating genetic disease. Might they decide to cancel your insurance? Privacy issues concerning genetic information is an important issue in this day and age. It's a term associated with the Human Genome project. This project didn't only have the goal to identify all the genes in the human genome, but also to address the ELSI that might arise from the project.

Rapid advances in DNA-based research, human genetics, and their applications have resulted in new and complex ethical and legal issues for society. The use of biotechnology has raised a number of ethical, legal, and social issues. Here are just a few:. Addressing such issues is beyond the scope of this concept. The following example shows how complex the issues may be:. A strain of corn has been created with a gene that encodes a natural pesticide. On the positive side, the transgenic corn is not eaten by insects, so there is more corn for people to eat.

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On the negative side, the transgenic corn has been shown to cross-pollinate nearby milkweed plants. Offspring of the cross-pollinated milkweed plants are now known to be toxic to monarch butterfly caterpillars that depend on them for food. Scientists are concerned that this may threaten the monarch species as well as other species that normally eat monarchs. As this example shows, the pros of biotechnology may be obvious, but the cons may not be known until it is too late.

Unforeseen harm may be done to people, other species, and entire ecosystems. No doubt the ethical, legal, and social issues raised by biotechnology will be debated for decades to come.