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What is Genetic Engineering?
Genetic engineering is the manipulation of the genetic code (the DNA, or genes) of a living organism. Generally, genes are removed (‘knocked out’), added (‘knocked in’), or altered to change their expression or function in some way.
The technology is used in most fields of research and can be divided into four fundamental areas of study: biomedical research, xenotransplantation, pharming, and agriculture production.
In biomedical research, scientists genetically modify animals to study basic biology and to develop artificial ‘models’ of human diseases.
In xenotransplantation research, transgenic animals are engineered specifically to produce organs, tissues, or cells that can be ‘harvested’ and transplanted into humans.
In pharming, animals are genetically engineered to serve as incubators or bioreactors for the production of pharmaceuticals for human use.
In agricultural production, livestock are genetically engineered to grow bigger and faster, produce leaner meat, or be resistant to disease. Transgenic animals are also produced as pets.
What are the Consequences?
Genetic engineering is an amazing feat of science, but it is fraught with serious and disturbing consequences.
Since most of the animals used are mice and rats, who are not covered under the Animal Welfare Act, it is impossible to know exactly how many genetically engineered animals are used for such applications. It is estimated, however, that approximately 40 million genetically engineered animals are used worldwide just in the study of human diseases.
Genetic engineering studies consume massive quantities of animals, and it requires hundreds to thousands of animals to create each ‘strain.’ Due to the unpredictability of the technology and frequent errors, a significant percentage of transgenic animals exhibit health issues and anatomic, physiologic, or behavioral abnormalities, causing significant animal suffering. Indeed, suffering is often inherent in the very design and purpose of the genetic modification. To make matters worse, researchers use cloning to propagate ‘strains’ of transgenic animals. Cloning, like genetic engineering, causes tremendous animal suffering, and the combination of the two technologies takes an unprecedented toll on animal life.
In addition, researchers who ‘create’ genetically modified animals also typically seek patents on them. These patents cover not only the methods used to produce the transgenic animals, but also the animals themselves. Animal patenting, however, is highly unethical, treating complex, sentient beings as human inventions that are mere ‘articles of manufacture.’
Genetic engineering applications also raise concerns about human safety due to the risk of zoonoses, or the transmission of animals diseases to humans. These issues, as well as additional concerns about impacts on the environment from the escape or release of transgenic animals, the ethics of genetically manipulating animals, and whether products from genetically modified animals would be labeled as such, have yet to be seriously addressed.
What Can be Done?
Not only does it represent one of the greatest threats to animals used in research, but it also has the potential to fundamentally change how humans view and use animals – for the worse. Researchers have an obligation to use this technology responsibly and ethically, and there need to be comprehensive regulations that ensure that animals, humans, and the environment are protected.
The future of biology should not be focused on the genetic engineering of animals, but rather on harnessing technological innovation for the development of non-animal models that will transform biomedical research into a more humane, reliable, and useful field of study.