Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Ethics of Bio-Engineering

During this semester of blogging, I have learned that bio/genetic engineering and ethics have become inseparable.  You cannot talk about the engineering without addressing the ethics.  The video from below shows many examples of bioengineering and asks questions about the ethics involved.  I'll summarize the video below, but if this is something that interests you, I recommend viewing it.

Mainly what I take from this video is that the line between what is ethical and unethical is very unclear in bioengineering.  In fact, it is so hazy that I cannot even speculate on a place to actually draw the line.  Some will say it should have been drawn years ago when we created "roundup ready" corn.  Others will say that we should use this technology to the fullest in order to help our society, despite any ethical questions that may be raised.

Regardless of your opinion, humans are now able to design the evolution of plants, animals, and possibly humans someday.  Darwinian evolution is really out the window in any place where the human hand is present.  It started 10,000 years ago when we began to control our environments, create irrigation systems, and decide how much of which crops would be grown and which animals would be bred.  Now, we can control evolution in the laboratory, which opens up a infinite amount of possibilities.

One of the issues the video brings up is the design of animals as living "factories" to produce medicines we require.  For example, a goat has been genetically modified to produce antithrombin in its milk.  As helpful as it could be, this is the type of industry where large factories could house thousands of animals in terrible living conditions, keeping the animals barely alive, so they can produce a product.  We have seen how some ranches and slaughter houses treat their cows and chickens, and this potential situation could yield similar results.

Everyone will see it differently, but I feel the line will need to be drawn somewhere.  The problem with drawing it is that bioengineering covers so many fields.  There's genetically modified crops and animals for food consumption, engineered animals for pets, engineered bugs that could be used as spying devices, and someday humans could also be genetically modified.  The possibilities are limitless and frightening.


  1. Very interesting to read this--in San Francisco, I attended an NSF workshop on the concept of "justice" as it pertained to reproductive technologies, environmental technologies, and genomics. There was a lot of discussion about couples being able to do "family balancing" through IVF, for example, and whether this constituted ethical problems or even came close to eugenic practices. Same with genomics. Scholars and scientists are worried about these issues, but whether regulation will keep apace with the technological applications is another matter.

  2. To me it seems that regulation lags behind technology in this field. It has happened with GM foods and GM animals, as well as GM pets (like fish that glow in the dark, which admittedly would be pretty cool...).