Human Survival THE NEW BIOLOGY - PANACEA OR PANDORA'S BOX?
Robert A Ginskey
And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved... Matthew 24:22
Spectacular new breakthroughs in genetics have propelled mankind to the threshold of a new era. By recombining the fundamental molecules of life, some scientists claim great benefits are in the offing. But others are alarmed at the potential for untold peril to all life on earth — far exceeding the menace of the atomic bomb! Thus the new biology poses one of the greatest dilemmas to ever face modern man.
The year 1976 marked the real beginning of the era of genetic engineering. It was just last fall that Nobel Prize winner Har Gobind Khorana of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that he had successfully synthesized the first fully functional gene from off-the-shelf chemicals. Khorana's achievement was the latest in a whole series of stunning biological "advances" that have signaled a new age of discovery — a biological revolution. "A new genie has emerged from the bottle of scientific research," proclaims Dr. Clifford Brobstein, biologist at the University of California, San Diego. The new biology has many facets — everything from artificial insemination (including sperm and egg banks), to organ transplants, to genetic tailoring and even human "cloning," the asexual reproduction of individuals that are identical to the original (see box on next page). Even some form of human immortality is held out as a future possibility. But one thing is certain: revolutionary biological breakthroughs are destined to become some of the most hotly debated and controversial developments of the twentieth century. "It represents probably the largest ethical problem science has ever had to face," admonishes Harvard biologist and Nobel Laureate George Wald. "I fear for the future of science as we have known it, for mankind, for life on the Earth." "The ethical problems... raised by the population explosion and artificial insemination, by genetics and neurophysiology. and by the social and mental sciences are at least as great as those arising from atomic energy and the H-bomb," declares Dr. W. H. Thorpe of Cambridge University. Why all the concern? To understand it, we need to briefly review the incredible biological achievements that have recently occurred.
Our Genetic Heritage
Science has known for some 25 years that a remarkable and awesomely complex molecule called DNA controls all heredity. DNA in the form of chromosomes and genes is found in every cell of every organism. Incredible as it may seem, biologists have demonstrated that each cell in your body contains the entire genetically coded information necessary for a complete human being. DNA is composed of various sequences of four chemicals known as nucleotides. Until recently, there was little science could do to alter these sequences. But in just the past few years, researchers have shown that it is possible to "transplant" genetic material (sections of DNA) into cells of wholly different species. By splitting open the DNA in one organism, researchers can insert new genes from a different organism, thus changing the hereditary characteristics of the organism! This breakthrough, coupled with other achievements, such as the synthesis of totally man-made genes, means that genetic engineering — and the creation of totally novel organisms — is now within reach. Proponents of such research say the DNA transplantation technique promises a whole array of benefits to medical research, practical medicine and agriculture. The process could, for example, provide critical insights into the way in which cells — including perhaps cancer cells — reproduce. It might also be used to mass-produce drugs that are now rare or expensive, such as insulin, gamma globulin, and antibiotics, by transplanting into some common host the genes that stimulate the production of these drugs. Some scientists talk of conquering crippling genetic diseases such as Down's syndrome, or sickle-cell anemia. The so-called recombinant DNA techniques also have potential applications in agriculture. For example, food crops could be given the genetic ability to convert nitrogen from the air directly into the chemical essentials for growth, a process known as nitrogen fixation. Such a breakthrough would dramatically reduce the world's dependence on costly fertilizers. Industry is also very interested in capitalizing on the new biology. At least one company is trying to use genetic manipulation to create a strain of bacteria that will literally eat up oil spills. Yet, while optimism over the genetic manipulation remains high in many circles, an increasing sense of alarm is being expressed by a growing number of scientists. The primary danger is that a new kind of virulent virus or bacteria might eventually be produced that could infect other organisms. This is especially likely in view of the fact that the prime organism currently used in genetic research is E. Coli, a bacteria that is a normal inhabitant of the human digestive tract and which can easily enter the body through the mouth or nose. "I myself must admit that, while I felt uneasy about future hazards when I carried out experiments on bacterial transformation 15 years ago, I did not ponder the full scope of the problem until recently," confides Dr. Liebe F. Cavalieri, professor of biochemistry at Cornell University. Warns Cavalieri: "A single unrecognized accident could contaminate the entire earth with an ineradicable and dangerous agent that might not reveal its presence until its deadly work was done... It is possible, intentionally or unintentionally, to construct highly dangerous agents of other types, worse than anything yet envisioned in biological warfare." Dr. Robert Sinsheimer, chairman of the Biology Division of the California Institute of Technology, warns that the new genetics may well be irreversible. "Because of human fallibility, these new organisms are almost certain to escape," Sinsheimer told The Plain Truth. "There's no way to recapture them, and thus we have the great potential for a major calamity." Erwin Chargaff, professor emeritus of Columbia University and long-time researcher on the characteristics of DNA, states: "I should say that the spreading of experimental cancer may be confidently expected." A chilling confirmation of Chargaff's prediction has already occurred. Researchers in Texas recently sounded cries of grave concern when they succeeded in genetically tinkering with an otherwise harmless mouse cancer virus, only to find that it was now capable of causing tumors in other species! "I think our initial feeling was more of fear than anything else," admitted Dr. Alfred Hellman, chief of the Office of Biological Safety at the Southwest Foundation in San Antonio. "If it's doing this to these animals, what's it going to do to us? And if it happens to us, it could happen to anybody." Because of the furor over genetic manipulation, the National Institute of Health has recently provided "guidelines" intended to regulate such research. But critics remain skeptical that such unenforceable guidelines will do much good. One outspoken opponent of such research is Dr. L. Douglas DeNike. He is concerned that the guidelines permit continued experimentation with so-called "crippled" forms of E. Coli."I fear that even 'crippled' forms of this microbe might transmit characteristics to ordinary E. Coli if they were accidentally released," DeNike told The Plain Truth. Other worried officials note that the NIH guidelines do not have the force of law. "At present the only thing the government can do," laments one scientist, "is cut off research funds if they violate the guidelines. But what about industry where they want to work with these bacteria on a massive commercial scale?" "We're talking about the prospects for the demise of biosphere," says DeNike. "This [research] is more hazardous than the atom bomb," stresses Harvard biologist Dr. Ruth Hubbard. "It could unleash 'super-bacteria' that are resistant to drugs and spread new types of disease world wide." Adds Hubbard: "An experimenter could inhale or ingest some of the bacteria and carry it out of the lab in his body — a common occurrence in even the best labs — and then pass the germ on to people outside, introducing a new disease to humanity." Even the oil-munching bacteria might have disastrous kickbacks. What happens, for example, if such bacteria were to infest oil wells or gas tanks? Would they consume the oil before it could ever be used?
The Brink of Cosmocide
"Of course such alarms have been raised before," says Cavalieri. "The A-bomb, nerve gas, biological warfare, the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer by fluorocarbon sprays — all have been held up as threats to human existence. But all of these dangers can, in theory if not in practice, be limited or controlled. The threat of a new form of life is more compelling, for once released, it cannot be controlled, and its effects cannot be reversed. A new disease may simply have to run its course, attacking millions in its path... This research is the greatest threat ever to our human existence."
Knowledge Run Amok
"We have gone along for several hundred years with the belief that knowledge and the means for acquiring knowledge are always beneficial," muses Sinsheimer. "The situation that first led anybody to question that assumption was the atomic bomb. I think that a lot of people wish there were a way to forget all about nuclear physics but there is not. For a while, many people hoped that it was an anomaly. But now here comes another one. How do you cope with this new observation that some kinds of knowledge and some kinds of technology can be very dangerous?... "'Know the truth and the truth will make you free' is a credo carved on the walls and lintels of laboratories and libraries across the land," Sinsheimer observes. But he adds, "We begin to see that the truth is not enough, that the truth is necessary but not sufficient, that scientific inquiry, the revealer of truth, needs to be coupled with wisdom if our object is to advance the human condition... We need to recognize that the great forces we now wield might — just might — drive us too swiftly toward some unseen chasm." Will the emerging science of genetic manipulation create the same horrors that have resulted from nuclear research? The tragic truth is that man has partaken of "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," but he simply does not have the wisdom to rightly use the technology he has invented. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge," God told the prophet Hosea (Hosea 4:6). What kind of knowledge is lacking? Certainly not scientific and technological knowledge; but the godly knowledge that would provide the moral, ethical and spiritual framework to guide man's quest in his understanding of the material universe. Jesus Christ described a last generation when wars, famines and, significantly enough, pestilences, would mark the beginning of a time of great sorrow and tribulation (Matt. 24:7, 8). Surely he referred to our times when he stated: "And except those days should be shortened, there should be no flesh be saved [alive].." (Matt. 24:22). Only the intervention of Christ will prevent global catastrophe and ensure the survival of mankind. Thankfully the most frightening aspects of the new biology may never come to pass.
Cloning: Duplicating Humans
Imagine a world where hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of people all look exactly alike. They have the same strengths and weaknesses, the same proclivities and interests. In short, they are identical replicas of one individual. Such a world may be possible in the near future. So far, human reproduction has always occurred through the union of a sperm and an' egg - the sex cells of male and female. But scientists know that all the other cells of the body contain a full set of genetic instructions for the entire individual. Thus if a body cell could be made to divide and grow, the result could be a reproduction of the person that donated that cell. This method of asexual procreation is called "cloning," and it has already been successfully accomplished with plants, fruit. flies and frogs. In 1968, Dr. J. B. Gurdon of Oxford University obtained an unfertilized egg cell from an African clawed frog. He destroyed the egg's nucleus (containing the egg's genetic code) with radiation. Gurdon then took a body cell from another frog, removed its nucleus with tiny surgical tools, and implanted it in the egg cell. The new "cell" combination began growing and dividing, and produced a new tadpole which grew up to be an identical twin of the frog that donated the nucleus! How would cloning work with human beings? Roughly the same way. A healthy egg could be removed from a woman's body and its nucleus destroyed. Then the nucleus from a cell taken from another person (the "donor") would replace the destroyed nucleus. The egg would then be reimplanted in the uterus of a woman and allowed to grow into a "photo copy" of the donor. In principle, the process could be repeated hundreds, thousands, yes millions of times (everybody has trillions of cells he or she could "donate" for such purposes). The consequences of human cloning are almost impossible to imagine. The family unit would have little reason to exist; sexual relations would no longer be needed for reproduction. The whole concept of parenthood, of being a "father" or, "mother" would need to be revised or perhaps discarded. What would cloning be used to produce? Perhaps millions of identical soldiers, cloned from the most aggressive and belligerent stock available? Perhaps a race of complacent passivists? A community of Einsteins? Perhaps an aging despot would seek to ensure his throne with a clone - his genetic double. (Would the real Idi Amin please stand up!) Or perhaps millions of people would seek a new form of "immortality" by engendering numerous clones of themselves. - Fertilization of human eggs has already been accomplished in the laboratory, and such eggs have been successfully implanted in human "mothers." Such techniques are essential prerequisites for implementing cloning. If cloning becomes acceptable in the future, human society will be dramatically altered - perhaps beyond recognition.
The Biology of the Future
What will the biology of tomorrow be like? Some far-reaching breakthroughs are predicted: *
1980 - Choose the sex of children before they are conceived 1985 - Artificial heart implantations; brain linked to computer 1990 - Chemical synthesis of cheap nutritious food; cancer conquered 1995 - First human clone; brain transplants commonplace 2000 - Transplantation of almost all organs of the body 2005 - Alteration of the processes of aging 2010 - Widespread use of artificial insemination to produce genetically superior offspring 2015 - Fetuses grown in artificial wombs 2020 - Genetic engineering in humans by chemically modifying their DNA chains 2025 - In Utero genetic manipulation 2030 - Total mastery of human genetics and heredity 2040 - Suspended animation of life 2050 - Complete control of the aging process; man-made immortality
*Adapted in part from The Post-Physician Era: Medicine in the 21st Century, written by Jerrold Maxmen (1976).