Genetic Engineering—Will It Improve the Human Race?
THERE is much talk about new discoveries in the field of genetics. Since the development of powerful microscopes that enable men to probe deeper into the world of the unit of life, the cell, and to see features that they never before knew existed, some researchers and journalists have theorized that men may be able to discover the complete genetic code, even the “secret of life.” They extend their speculations, even forecasting that, by genetic manipulation, they will be able to cure hereditary diseases and defects and, possibly, make a race having superior bodies and intellects.
Some things have been done with the very simple life forms by way of genetic interference. But scientists almost unanimously admit that they are far, far from manipulating the genes of the human cell so that they can correct deficiencies. Let us examine a few of the things that have been done.
The word “clone” means a group of organisms produced without sexual union from a single ancestor. In nature clones are found in organisms capable of asexual reproduction, that is, in certain plants and bacteria. The offspring inherit their genes from one parent. Therefore all individuals in a clone are genetically alike. Artificial cloning has been done with animals that reproduce sexually, such as sea urchins, salamanders and frogs. An egg cell is enucleated, that is, the nucleus is removed and replaced with the nucleus from the body cell of an animal of the same kind. But in every case, the nucleus taken from the body cell of an animal, and inserted into the egg of another, has to be taken at a very early stage in all but extremely simple life forms. This is because, slightly later, yet still at an early stage in the development of an embryo, the cells become differentiated or specialized and will not serve for cloning of a total new individual. Why? For the reason that, although every body cell has the full complement of chromosomes, the differentiated cell cannot function in other parts of the body. This is because the genetic code on its chromosomes will work for only that part of the body that the cell is specialized to serve. When placed in the enucleated egg, the cloning attempt will fail. Monroe W. Strickberger of Saint Louis University, in his book Genetics, says about cloning:
“The cells of early sea urchin embryos, for example, can be isolated from each other at the two- and four-cell stages and nevertheless develop into complete embryos. In salamanders, Spemann showed that a single cell at the embryonic 16-cell stage could produce an entire embryo. More recent experiments by Briggs and King have shown that some nuclei from blastula and gastrula [very early] stages of frog embryos (Rana pipiens) are still sufficiently potent to produce a complete embryo when transplanted into an enucleated egg. In Xenopus laevis, the African clawed frog, Gurdon has shown that at least 20 percent of the intestinal cells of feeding tadpoles can be transplanted and produce functional muscle and nerve cells. Furthermore, some of these intestinal cells may even produce a completely viable embryo. In plants Steward has found that individual carrot root cells can, with proper nourishment, be made to differentiate into complete carrot plants. In Drosophila [a vinegar fly] Hadorn has shown that larval embryonic discs which would ordinarily develop into genital tissue, for example, will, after many successive transplantations, develop into other tissues as well, including parts of the head, thorax, legs and wings.”
Note, in Strickberger’s comments, that, in order to achieve successful cloning, the nuclei must be taken from a sea urchin when it is only in the two- to four-cell stage, and from a salamander embryo when it consists of only 16 cells—yet very tiny. The nucleus must be taken from the blastula and gastrula stages of frog embryos (at this point no semblance or form of the creature is distinguishable). Cells of these stages soon after conception must be used because, after a cell becomes differentiated and starts doing its specialized work in a certain part of the body, it will not serve as do the younger cells, not being versatile enough to produce all parts of the individual, in this case a frog. In one species of frog, the Xenopus laevis, a very small percentage of intestinal tadpole cells may produce a complete embryo that will live. (A tadpole is an early, immature form of a frog.) In the case of Drosophila, the vinegar fly or “fruit fly,” genital tissue from larval (early wormlike stage) embryonic discs, only by successive transplantations, will develop into other tissues with which it is associated by transplant, but not into complete embryos.
As to cloning in humans, biologists do not claim that this can be done, or that they are anywhere near doing so. Some uninformed persons, apparently for sensationalism, have envisioned cloned populations of humans, directed by genetic engineers, in which only the most desirable personality traits exist. Some have theorized that persons like Einstein—mental prodigies—or great athletes—could be duplicated by cloning. But note that, even in the lowly sea urchin or the salamander, the cells have to be taken at the blastula or the gastrula stage—very early embryonic stages, for successful cloning. Who would know at the blastula or gastrula stage of a child’s formation whether he would turn out to have “Einstein-type” intelligence? At that early period of growth, there is not even a semblance of human form, and it is impossible to know then whether the individual will be healthy and intelligent, or deformed, imbecilic and of the poorest quality.
The Controversy over Genetic Engineering
There has been a great controversy over “genetic engineering.” Some advocate it, saying that, in time, scientists may be able to remove from the cell certain sections of the chromosome that contains genes of a defective kind and to replace them, thereby “repairing” the cell. This, they hope, would prevent parents from passing on to children genetically transmitted diseases. At the present stage of this new experimental process, such manipulation of the human cell is totally impossible. Why?
Biologists know very, very little about which chromosome, and particularly which gene (or genes) in a cell, has to do with formation of a given trait. Moreover, the human cell is infinitely more complex than frog cells, and scientists are at present unable to tamper with the human cell in this way, because such tampering can easily kill the cell. This is undoubtedly a “safety” feature incorporated by the Creator, so that, when a cell, or even a chromosome, is damaged seriously, the cell dies. Such “safety” feature prevents further development of the embryo and birth. Otherwise many more babies would be born in a seriously deformed or mentally defective condition.
Right now genetic engineering is concentrating to a great extent on producing certain needed substances, such as insulin, and in detecting genetic diseases in human fetuses. Much of their work is focused on the manipulation of bacteria. But even here there are great fears. Also, because of the great lack of knowledge of the organisms involved, scientists, health officials and other concerned persons have been embroiled in complex arguments as to the restrictions that should be placed on genetic engineering attempts, especially when it comes to altering bacteria.
Another aspect of genetic control consists of radioactive treatment of insects. The New York Times of May 17, 1978, on page A16, reports on the efforts of scientists of the University of California at Berkeley in bombarding mosquitoes with nonlethal radiation from Cobalt 60, in order to break up and transfer to another location their genetic material. The purpose is to bring about a strain of mosquitoes that have an immunity to a certain virus causing inflammation of the brain (encephalitis). They plan to release colonies of these immune mosquitoes with the hope that “in breeding with the normal mosquito population of the area the encephalitis-free genetic trait will be passed on to enough progeny to eliminate the whole mosquito population as a disease carrier.” Another technique for fighting disease is the releasing of sterile mosquitoes. If enough females mate with the sterile males, the overall population should be reduced, thereby reducing the danger of human infection.
Dr. William C. Reeves, one of the experimenters in this project, spoke doubtingly of the effectiveness of such efforts, saying: “Sometimes even with well developed and effective methods, luck runs against you. You may release hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes that took three years to breed, only to have them quickly killed by a high wind or too much heat, before they can mate.”
Dr. Reeves went on to say: “We’ve had good results in the laboratory and in test tents, but you can’t always be sure something like this will also work in the natural environment.”
A Better Hope
So genetic engineering holds out, perhaps, a little hope of helping those now living, and a very questionable hope, if any, for the future. Certainly such meager prospects cannot compare with the hope of the better, lasting life that the Creator holds out to men who love him. One of the apostles of Jesus Christ, Simon Peter, wrote: “There are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.”—2 Pet. 3:13.
The apostle John also held forth this hope. In the last book of the Bible—the Revelation or the Apocalypse—he recorded a vision given to him by Jesus Christ. John writes: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . With that I heard a loud voice from the throne say: ‘Look! The tent of God is with mankind, and he will reside with them, and they will be his peoples. And God himself will be with them. And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.”—Rev. 21:1-4.
So the Creator, who knows exactly the working of the genes and all other components of the cell and of the human body, and who has humanity’s interests at heart, reveals to us the real hope that exists, not merely for those who will be born, but also for the living. And he promises to help those to whom no scientist, even in his most fanciful dreams, gives any promise, namely, those who have died. For Jesus Christ himself said: “Do not marvel at this, because the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out.”—John 5:28, 29.
The Question of Aging
The abolition of death means also the end of aging. Scientists do not know exactly what causes aging. They are perplexed when they see the manner in which cells divide. Leonard Hayflick, microbiologist of the Bruce Lyon Memorial Research Laboratory, Oakland, California, Reports that certain experiments seem to indicate that there is a “built-in” aging and dying process in the cells of all animal life. Normal human embryonic cells cultured in a test tube in the laboratory were found to stop dividing after about 50 population doublings (brought about by individual cell divisions). Cancer cells, which are abnormal, kept on dividing. During the population doublings the normal cells also deteriorated somewhat, so that in actual life the individual could likely age and die before the 50 doublings are completed. This harmonizes with the Bible’s explanation as to the inheritance of imperfection from humankind’s forefather, Adam.—Rom. 5:12.
Also, other surveys have indicated that all mammals tend to follow a certain pattern in their life-spans. The length of life seems to be largely in direct proportion to body size, and inversely proportional to heartbeat and breathing rates. A tiny shrew, for example, lives a “fast” but short life, its fast-burning metabolic rate demanding lots of food and its heart and breathing rates being rapid. In the elephant’s more “leisurely” life, the processes are slower and life is much longer. But, paradoxically, the human body does not adhere to this pattern. Humans live longer than they are “supposed to,” as judged by this pattern. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University, U.S.A., remarks: “Homo sapiens is a markedly deviant mammal in more ways than braininess alone. We live about three times as long as mammals of our body size ‘should,’ but we breathe at the ‘right’ rate and thus live to breathe about three times as much as an average mammal of our body size.”
Again, this seeming irregularity is explained by the Bible, for it shows that animals were created with a limited life-span. Not so with humans, however. The Bible record reveals that, in the early history of the human race, when it was not far from its created perfection, men lived 700 to 900 years.—Gen. 5:3-31.
If a person believes the evidences of his senses proving that there is a Creator who brought into being the galaxies, which run in amazing orderliness, and the earth, with its multitudinous living things, all interdependent, then it is not hard for him to see how such a Creator can sustain the lives of humans forever. He promises to restore mankind to perfect life through Christ’s Kingdom rule. As the Creator, he is of necessity able to know and control every molecule and every step of the cell’s activities. When we consider the astronomical quantity of energy manifest in the universe, we realize that it is no problem for the One in whom limitless energy resides to heal any genetic irregularities, and to supply energy for the continuation of the human life cycle indefinitely, ending aging and death, for, as the psalmist said in prayer to him: “With you is the source of life.”—Ps. 36:9.