Genetic Modification and its Ethical Implications
In recent years, genetic modification has increased significantly as technology advances, and the debate of its ethical implications has become more immediate. Cloning by definition is producing organisms with identical DNA to one another, which can be done naturally or artificially. In the environment, organisms produce genetically identical organisms during asexual reproduction. In biotechnology, it refers to creating copies of cells or DNA fragments. There are various applications of cloning relating to companion, wild, and farm animals.
Zebrafish have been genetically engineered to have fluorescent proteins by inserting genes from sea anemone and jellyfish. These Zebrafish were referred to as “Glofish” and were marketed in the United States to consumers. California banned the sale of Glofish because of ethical concerns around this genetic modification. Other techniques are being used to create hypoallergenic cats by removing the gene that codes for the major cat allergen.
With wild animals, the main purpose of genetic modification would be to clone extinct or endangered species. This would mean that species would last longer in the environment and we could retain genetic diversity in small populations of endangered species.
There are different ways we can genetically engineer livestock to improve food quality, disease resistance, animal productivity, and environmental sustainability. To increase food quality and nutritional value, pigs have been engineered to express the Δ12 fatty acid desaturase gene (from spinach) and goats to express human lysozyme in their milk. Disease resistant animals have been created by disrupting the virus entry mechanism, parasite control, and mastitis resistance in cattle. The Enviropig is a genetically engineered pig, made to reduce environmental pollution by enabling it to produce an enzyme to break down phytase, therefore limiting the amount of phosphorus released in its manure.
Though these applications seem positive, ethical issues and concerns for animal welfare have been raised. These procedures can be very invasive and usually require the sacrifice of some animals and surgical procedures of others, including vasectomies, surgical embryo transfer, and tissue sampling. However, in recent times, less invasive methods are feasible like non-surgical embryo transfer which is similar to artificial insemination and removes the need for invasive surgeries. Usually, a large number of animals are required and not many of them survive. Many embryos that undergo genetic engineering die, and only 1% - 30% of those who survive actually carry the required alteration. This means huge numbers of animals are produced to obtain modified ones, which contradicts efforts to minimize animal use. A surplus of animals is being exposed to harmful procedures unnecessarily.
As a community, we haven’t fully come to a conclusion on whether genetic modification is ethical or not, but little data has been collected on the net welfare of these animals. These clones coils also suffer from a degree of abnormality as studies have revealed many types of developmental abnormalities such as extended gestation; large birth weight; inadequate placental formation; and histological effects in organs and tissues.
With progress in genetic engineering techniques, new methods may substantially reduce the unpredictability of the location of gene insertion. As a result, genetic engineering procedures may become less of a welfare concern over time.
Berthold, Emma. “What Is Genetic Modification?” Curious, 13 Aug. 2020, www.science.org.au/curious/earth-environment/what-genetic-modification.
Ormandy, Elisabeth H, et al. “Genetic Engineering of Animals: Ethical Issues, Including Welfare Concerns.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal = La Revue Veterinaire Canadienne, Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, May 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3078015/.
“What Are the Ethical Concerns of Genome Editing?” Genome.gov, www.genome.gov/about-genomics/policy-issues/Genome-Editing/ethical-concerns.