Biotechnology: Ethical Issues

views updated

Biotechnology: Ethical Issues

Biotechnology is the use of organisms or their parts or products to provide a valuable substance or process. Fermentation using microorganisms in brewing, baking, and cheese production are biotechnologies that date back centuries. Production of human insulin in bacteria to treat type I diabetes mellitus without causing allergic reactions is a more modern example of biotechnology. Two widely used biotechnologies that manipulate genes are recombinant DNA technology, which endows single-celled organisms with novel characteristics using genes from other organisms, and transgenic technology, which creates multicellular organisms that bear genes from other types of organisms. Genetically modified (GM) fruits and vegetables, such as a type of corn that manufactures a bacterial insecticide, are transgenic plants.

Ethical issues that arise from modern biotechnologies include the availability and use of privileged information, potential for ecological harm, access to new drugs and treatments, and the idea of interfering with nature. Applications include agriculture and health care.


In agriculture, GM crops have been in the food supply in the United States for several years. Foods containing GM ingredients are not usually labeled to indicate their origin. This is because regulatory agencies determine food safety based on its similarity to existing foods, its chemical composition, and effects on the digestive systems of test animals, not on whether the plant variant arose from traditional agriculture or transgenic technology. If a food is found to include a chemical that could cause an allergy or is a toxin, it is not marketed. As of early 2002, there have been no reports of harm coming from the consumption of GM foods.

Still, individuals who object to genetic modification would like the opportunity to select plant foods that were not produced in this manner. Labeling would solve this problem, and perhaps with continued consumer pressure it may come to pass. Some argue that at times, those who object to GM foods have acted in unethical ways. In several instances, protesters destroyed what they erroneously thought were fields of GM plants. Companies have behaved in ethically questionable ways in the GM food debate too. Before consumer outrage put an end to it, certain agrichemical companies sold GM crops that did not produce viable seed, forcing farmers to purchase new seed each year.

Another concern arising in agricultural biotechnology is the unintended spread of transgenes to other organisms. When a crop is grown in the field, its DNA, including the transgene, can theoretically be spread to other organisms in several ways. Certain types of plant viruses can transfer DNA from the host chromosome to a wild relative as well. Bacteria take up genes from the environment in the process known as transformation, and pass genes among different types of plants through conjugation . It is not yet known whether any of these latter processes have occurred with GM plant DNA, and detection may be difficult. It is likely to be a question not of whether but of when, however, given the large acreages devoted to GM plants.

Again the question arises of whether the consequences of such gene transfers are qualitatively different from the same process occurring on crop plants modified through traditional breeding. Opponents of GM crops say yes, since the potential exists to transfer genes from sources that would otherwise never be found in the agricultural environment. For instance, jellyfish genes are used in some agricultural research. In addition, the potential for harm from "escaped genes" may be greater precisely because the gene is so useful agriculturally. The gene for a natural insecticide may help grow safer corn, for example, but it could also allow a wild plant to escape its natural controls and become a serious forest weed. While such scenarios are hypothetical for the moment, opponents say that so little is known about the intricacies of ecology that caution is the only safe policy.

Health Care

In health care, genetic testing presents several ethical challenges. Legislation is in place or is being developed to limit access to genetic information, so that employers or insurers cannot discriminate against individuals because of their genotypes. Testing for a genetic disease presents a complication not seen in other types of illnesses, because the diagnosis of one individual immediately reveals the risk that other family members may be affected, based on the rules of inheritance. For example, a young woman learned that she is a carrier of Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, which causes severe immune deficiency that is lethal in childhood. Because the mutant gene is carried on the X chromosome, each of her sons faces a 50 percent chance of inheriting the illness. Knowing that the same would be true for other carriers in her family, the young woman chose to inform all of her relatives who might also carry the gene. The decision of whether or not to be tested rests with the individuals.

Another ethical dilemma in health care that arises from biotechnology is cost and access to new treatments. Such drugs as tissue plasminogen activator, used to break up clots that cause heart attacks and strokes, and erythropoietin and colony-stimulating factors, used to restore blood supplies in cancer patients being treated with chemotherapy, are extremely expensive. Although insurers often cover the costs in the United States, people in many other nations cannot take advantage of these drugs.

Because biotechnology is a rapidly evolving field, experiments and clinical trials are ongoing. Participation in a clinical trial of a recombinant DNA-derived drug, or of a gene therapy, requires informed consent. A case in 1999 provoked reevaluation of the care with which such participants are screened, and of the adequacy of informed consent protocols. Jesse Gelsinger was 19 when he received experimental gene therapy to treat ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency. In this disorder, lack of an enzyme that metabolizes protein leads to buildup of ammonia, which damages the brain. Most affected individuals die within days of birth, but survivors can usually control symptoms with diet and drugs, as Jesse had been doing. This is why his death five days after receiving the gene therapy was especially tragic. An underlying and undetected medical condition may have contributed to his death.

Medication usually controlled Gelsinger's condition, but he chose to join the clinical trial so that he might help babies who died of a more severe form of the illness. Although Gelsinger clearly stated that he realized he might die, questions arose about the extent of his knowledge, largely because he had been healthy. This issue does not arise in the more common situation in which a participant in a gene therapy trial has exhausted conventional treatments, because he or she has little to lose at that point. Clinical trials of gene therapy are now conducted with much greater care.

New Challenges

Another objection to biotechnology is that it interferes with nature, but so do traditional agriculture and medicine. However, the changes that biotechnology can introduce are usually quite unlikely to occur naturally, such as a tobacco plant that glows thanks to a firefly protein, or cloning a human. We place limits on some biotechnologies, but not on others, based on our perceptions and on the intents of the interventions. The glowing tobacco plant was done as an experiment to see if a plant could express a gene from an animal, but many countries ban human cloning because it is seen as unnecessary, dangerous, and unethical. Still, time can change minds. When Louise Joy Brown, the first baby conceived using in vitro fertilization, was born in 1980, objection to "test tube baby" technology was loud. The procedure is now routine. In general, it seems that a biotechnology will eventually be considered ethical if evidence accumulates demonstrating that it does no harm.

A biotechnology that by its very definition causes harm is bioterrorism, especially when genetic manipulation is used to augment the killing power of a naturally occurring pathogen. Bioterrorism dates back to the Middle Ages, when Tartan warriors hurled plague-ridden corpses over city walls to kill the inhabitants. The British used a similar approach in the eighteenth century, when they intentionally gave Native Americans blankets that carried smallpox virus. Efforts in the former Soviet Union to create bio-weapons from the 1970s until the 1990s introduced genetic modificiations. For example, they engineered plague bacteria to be resistant to sixteen different antibiotic drugs and to produce a toxin that adds paralysis to the list of its effects. International efforts to ban bio-weapon development in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, might put an end to this subversion of biotechnology.

see also Agricultural Biotechnology; Cloning: Ethical Issues; Gene Therapy: Ethical Issues; Genetic Discrimination; Genetic Testing: Ethical Issues; Metabolic Disease; Reproductive Technology: Ethical Issues; Transgenic Organisms: Ethical Issues.

Ricki Lewis


Burgess, Michael M. "Beyond Consent: Ethical and Social Issues in Genetic Testing." Nature Reviews Genetics 2 (Feb., 2001): 147-151.

Dale, Philip. "Public Concerns over Transgenic Crops." Genome Research 10 (Jan., 2000): 1.

Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. "The Biotech Death of Jesse Gelsinger." The New York Times Magazine (Nov. 28, 1999): 17.