OPINION: Genetic engineering’s benefits

Scientists work in labs to produce more efficient plants, healthier animals using genetic manipulation



Scientists working on genetically modifying organisms aren’t doing it out of malevolence; they’re doing it to save people.

HANNA YUZYUK, Evergreen columnist

People with animal organ transplants, people missing chunks of their genomes, babies with eyes and hair designed by the parents and other awful things popped up in my mind when I heard the phrase “genetic engineering,” but that’s far from being accurate. Genetic engineering is actually responsible for a good portion of modern day beneficial science.

Many people unfamiliar with genetic engineering may be scared of what is going on in labs when scientists play around with different species’ genes.

The colossal scandal with Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who edited the genomes of two baby girls, occurred in 2018. Jiankui was the first scientist to admit to human gene editing, but it’s possible that many other scientists do something like Jiankui in their labs today.

Famous writer Margaret Atwood once explained what is so scary about gene editing and how far we are from those times. Atwood wrote about her vision of some possible scenarios of playing with genes, and gave examples of variations of different hybrids created when the human genome was edited — for example, people with blue skin.

“There is a lack of understanding between gene editing and what would be considered conventional GMOs [genetically modified organisms] or genetic engineering,” said Jon Oatley, director of WSU’s Center for Reproductive Biology. “Gene editing is a very different type of gene manipulation. It is a different way of making changes in genetics than GMOs.”

I think this is the first issue related to our understanding of genetic science: the possibility to see the difference between the mechanisms of genetic engineering with GMO results and gene editing. It will help us to be clear about our concerns as a society.

“First of all, gene editing is an extremely big field,” said molecular biosciences doctoral student Zoe Sehlke. “It it is not limited to humans. In fact, almost none of it is used in humans.”

It is an exciting thing every time we see news about how scientists can mess with our genes. There are protests in many countries to stop any work involving gene editing, but the real work with genes is never really explained, including what species are subjected to the most genetic engineering.

“People are making conclusions in their heads based on the emotional response to historical happenings in the GMO arena,” Oatley said.

I think it is vital to know the evidence, procedures and controlling mechanisms in genetic studies before making any conclusions.

The news would never tell you about the positive side of gene editing and how it can help us in the future. It is understandable because shocking ugly news with evil professors is more interesting for the audience than proper helpful research on the field of genetics.

“Gene editing is used as a laboratory tool to look at different processes in the defense mechanism of the laboratory animals,” Sehlke said. “So most commonly it is used in things like yeasts or mice. We could look at certain phenotypes and certain effects.”

I think we understand that a tool is never inherently right or wrong from a moral standpoint. The issue lies with the people who use it. There’s not much news about scientists who do great work in daily labs. Some of them are working with plants, trying to make specific phenotypes in plant cultures we use for everyday food.

“I think we just need to have a better narrative with the public about what it is,” Oatley said. “We need scientists who will be able to interface with the public and have a discussion to help the audience to understand the scientific journey and grandiose scientific experiment of gene editing.”

Many scientists in the lab work hard to prevent the problems we can face in the future. They do work with different variations of gene editing to help people. Most scientists do not play with genes for fun or satisfaction with their scientific ambitions. They try to help with existing problems and prevent possible future issues we might soon have to face.

Hunger is not a big problem for big countries with sound economics, but many developing countries today struggle with feeding their population. I hope someday we can get past this issue, and gene editing can play a crucial role in this process. For example, scientists can create food crops that grow better and are resistant to many diseases. An example of this is semi-dwarf wheat, a food crop invented using genetic engineering, that saved billions of lives.

Regarding human gametes, gene editing is prohibited in most countries, and it will be for many years. Many organizations like the World Health Organization have argued for a worldwide moratorium on human gene editing, but the WHO is not a regulatory organization and cannot create any law.

“It is some other technique than gene editing is used by the human gametes,” Sehlke said. “For in vitro fertilization, they take the embryo which has the best probability of surviving based on known diseases.”

I think in vitro fertilization is also controversial, but it is a real chance for people to become parents. I think it is an excellent tool if you can give your baby a chance to be healthy. To be honest, we see those examples in nature a lot.

For instance, a bee queen collects many different sperm variations from males and then chooses the best version to make offspring. I do not see any particular reason for us not to be wise and avoid diseases if we can.

“We are still learning about gene editing every day. It is why it is limited toward the laboratory, and we work with the laboratory test subjects,” Sehlke said. “As a new technology, it should be explored before it will be released.”

There are many different controlling mechanisms and precautions for any laboratory experiment. If somebody thinks that making something in the lab is easy and scientists can act with impunity, they’re wrong. There are many different laws that control everything regarding science and experimentation.

Federal law is the controlling mechanism for the gene editing for mammals. The Food and Drug Administration regulates the production of any genetically-manipulated organism in the U.S. People often have concerns about gene-edited organisms and their use for food.

There’s often questions about the safety of consuming those animals for food. Any person who has a high-school-level knowledge about genes would understand that other organisms’ genes can not be inserted in our genes, even if we eat those organisms.

“As far as human beings ingesting products that come from the gene-edited animal and then inheriting those genes — that just simply cannot happen,” Oatley said.

When you consider gene editing different species like goats, pigs and cattle, it is entirely safe to have those animals for food. As Oatley explained, gene editing is the fastest way to get through the selection process to breed desirable traits into animals.

We know that we have done genetic selection for thousands of years already with the domestication of animals and plants. In this process, we perform genetic editing, but more slowly and uncontrolled. Scientists in the labs can perform it faster and more precisely.

“Gene editing is taking a spot in the DNA and saying, ‘I want to make a precise change at that location,’” Oatley said.

Gene editing can make some positive changes and treat many human, animal and plant diseases.

Sehlke said the pharmacogenetic treatment helps many people today. This occurs when the gene is edited in an adult human organism to treat genetic disorders, the body does not produce a specific gene. This gene editing is precise, and it is a controlled process because it is not possible to transmit it to offspring.

In summary, I want to calm everybody down with a more optimistic look at genetic engineering.

First, we are far away from any fantastic creatures from Atwood’s books.

Second, gene editing today is used mostly for plants and animals.

Third, the news does not provide an objective opinion about the real situation with gene editing in science, bringing only scandals to light.