The Ethics of Genomics


Oct 23, 2013 (4 years and 8 months ago)


The Ethics of Genomics

Are GMOs Bad?

Is Genetic Testing Good?

How Should the Public Be Informed
of New Discoveries?

Should We Clone Humans?


Genetically Modified

Is the modification of genomes intrinsically
wrong or enormously beneficial?

Many choose to evaluate this question on a
case basis

Golden Rice

Biological Plastics

Pharmaceutical Produce

Sterile Fruit

Resistant Plants


Golden Rice

Rice is the staple food for 124 million people

Many of these same people suffer from a
vitamin A deficiency

which causes blindness

Vitamin pills are not feasible in countries
which lack $ and infrastructure

In Jan 2000, rice was transformed with 3
genes which allow it to make

Two of these genes came from daffodil and
one came from bacteria

Testing is being performed in the Philippines,
Africa, China, India, and Latin America

So, What’s the Controversy?

All commercial rights to Golden Rice has been
transferred to Syngenta, the world’s largest

Syngenta has promised to provide Golden Rice
to all subsistence farmers free of charge

Organizations such as Greenpeace believe this
is a ploy to introduce more GMOs into
developing countries where resistance is limited

Syngenta claims that only strains consumed
within the developing country will be bred, not
ones which could then be sold in the West

Biological Plastics

Plastic is usually made from petroleum

PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) is a naturally
occurring form of polyester

It was 1st described in 1925 by Lemoigne

PHA uses renewable resources and is

GMOs have been modified to produce PHA

Metabolix is one company working with
GMOs in this way

Pharmaceutical Produce

Edible plants have been engineered to
deliver vaccinations

Arntzen and colleagues produced the 1st
prescription potato

Unfortunately, raw potatoes work best to
deliver medicine

cooked ones lose 50% of
their potency

Increased consumption may make up for this

Additional trials are underway with bananas

Sterile Fruit

In 1997, a patent was granted for “Terminator”

This can render GM seeds sterile so that they
cannot be re
planted by farmers

The technology was designed to protect the
investments of biotech companies

Monsanto has acquired the rights to this

Many farmers, especially subsistence ones, re
plant the seeds from the previous crop

It is feared that companies may monopolize
the world’s food supply using this technology

Resistant Plants

Bacillus subtilis toxin (BT) has been
incorporated into plants

The use of this natural pesticide should
reduce the amount of chemicals used

It is feared that the BT gene could be
transferred to other plants via lateral transfer

Initial claims of BT being transferred to milk
weed and killing monarch butterflies have
been unfounded

Like antibiotic resistance, some insects have
become resistant to BT


Organs are taken from one species and put into

In 1984, a baboon’s heart was transplanted into
Baby Fae, who lived 20 days

Pigs are commonly used as sources of adult

Nextran is one company which genetically
engineers pigs to serve as better donors

The plasma membranes of pig cells have been
inserted with human proteins to reduce rejection

Most concerns center on disease transmission

Why Pigs?

they grow to be the size of a large human and
share certain physiological and anatomical
aspects with humans

they are domesticated and are easy to breed

they have large litters and grow rapidly

The first genetically engineered pig was born
in 1992

By 1994, hundreds of these pigs had been
produced for organ
transplant research

In 2003, it was announced that a pig gene that
contributes to human rejection of porcine
organs had been knocked

Why Not Pigs?

A number of porcine diseases have the potential to
infect humans

Pigs are known to have PERVs (porcine endogenous

PERVs have been shown to be able to infect
immunodeficient mice and human cells in culture

It is still unknown whether there are diseases which can
be passed between pigs and humans

As research continues, thousands wait to receive organ
transplants; about 25
30% of patients waiting for heart
or lung transplants die before suitable organs became
available to them

Could human cloning be an answer to this shortage

Nucleation Bacteria

The damage caused by frost injury in this
country has been estimated to exceed $1

In nature, the formation of ice crystals on plants
is often triggered by the growth of bacteria on
the outside of these plants

Some bacteria have proteins on their surfaces
that are particularly effective triggers of ice

In the absence of these bacteria, plants can
reach an internal temperature of
C without

How To Keep Plants From Freezing:

warm the air around them or insulate the crops

spray bactericides on the crops to kill the bacteria

spray the crops with bacteria which inhibit the growth of
nucleation bacteria

The bacteria responsible for ice
nucleation are P. syringae.
These bacteria have been genetically engineered to lack
the protein which causes ice
nucleation and are known as
minus strains.

In 1983, field tests were approved for the ice
bacteria. Jeremy Rifkin complained that ice
bacteria could play a role in the climate by triggering ice
nucleation events in the atmosphere.

Trials of ice
minus bacteria were blocked for many years,
the first test took place in 1987.

Insertion of Modified DNA into Cells


Biolistic delivery uses a particle gun to shoot DNA
into an organism. DNA of interest is mixed with
particles of metal such as tungsten. Widely used in

Microinjection into the nucleus involves the use of a
microscope and a very small needle. This method is
used on animal cells (Xenopus oocytes), and
ensures that a large proportion of cells take up the

Electroporation uses a strong electric field which
forces the DNA into the cells. Used on plant and
fungal cells

Silicon carbide transformation simply mixes DNA with
particles which punch small holes in plant cells.

Have been used in attempts to insert a copy of a gene into

bone marrow cells, the desired gene is first made into RNA

and then inserted into the retrovirus

Limitations of this technique are:

Retroviruses can only infect dividing cells, certain body
cells (ie. nerves) do not divide

Retroviruses insert themselves at random into human

it is not possible to control where they will
be inserted

gene may not be effective as normal if inserted into the
wrong area

gene may be inserted into tumor
suppressor genes and
cause cancer


Do not insert their DNA into host chromosomes

Have been used to attempt gene therapy for CF

Descendents of GM cells do not carry the CF gene

The treatment must be repeated every few months,
but there is no risk of cancer



Causes crown gall in plants, a disease consisting of
tumors on the stalk of a plant

The bacterium enters wounds on plants and inserts
part of a plasmid (Ti) into the host DNA

Scientists can insert a desired gene into the Ti plasmid
and infect plants with this recombinant plasmid

History of Biotech: the early years

9,000 B.C. (Mesopotamia & Canaan) D. of dogs
8,000 B.C. (Iran & Afghanistan)
D. of goats and
sheep; (Canaan) D. of emmer wheat and barley

7,000 B.C. (Peru) D. of potatoes and beans,
(Indonesia) rice and (North America) pumpkins

6,000 B.C. (East Asia & China)

D. of pig and
water buffalo, (South Asia) chicken, (Turkey) cows,
(Syria) einkorn wheat, (Turkey) macaroni, (New
Guinea) sugarcane, (Indonesia) yams, bananas and
coconuts, (Asia) flax, and (Mexico) maize and peppers;
(Egypt) beer first made from yeast

3,000 B.C. (Iran) Breeding records of domesticated
donkeys recorded on stone tablets

2,000 B.C. (Sumaria) 19 brands of beer available

300 B.C.

Aristotle: concept of speciation

History of Biotech: the modern era


Restriction enzymes discovered, methods to
determine the sequence of DNA


Conference in Asilomar, CA to set guidelines for
genetic engineering


PCR developed


H. influenzae 1st organism to have its entire
genome sequenced


“Dolly” the sheep becomes first mammal to be
cloned by nuclear transfer


Mice and cows cloned


Monkeys cloned, Jesse Gelsinger becomes 1

death attributed to gene therapy


The human genome sequenced; Dolly dies at
an early age

Traditional Biotech vs. GMOs

species which are crossed in traditional
biotechnology are always closely related, this is not
so in genetic engineering

the pace of change in traditional biotechnology is
much slower than that of genetic engineering,
working on a scale of years rather than weeks

traditional biotechnology has been applied on a
relatively small number of species, such as crop
plants, farm animals and yeast. Genetic engineering
is more ambitious in scope and seeks to change
these, as well as other, organisms such as those
involved in sewage disposal, pollution control and
drug production.

Is Genetic Testing Good?

Life Insurance

Universal Screening

Genomic Diversity Banks

Who Will Benefit the Most?

At the inception of the HGP in 1990, ELSI
was formed to study Ethical Legal and
Social Issues of genomics


Privacy and Fairness in the Use and
Interpretation of Genetic Information

Clinical Integration of New Genetic
(examines impact of genetic testing on
individuals, families, and society)

Issues Surrounding Genetics Research
(the design, conduct, participation in, and
reporting of genetics research)

Public and Professional Education

Ethics of Genetic Testing

When a new disease
associated gene is
discovered, a genetic test may soon follow

Many people in positions of authority
believe in genetic determinism, that all
human traits are encoded in DNA, this is
an oversimplification of the truth

Is genetic testing a new form of eugenics?

Who has the right to know the results of
your test?

Who has the right to obtain your DNA for
genetic testing?

Screening for G6PD Deficiency

In addition to sensitivity to fava beans, deficiency in
G6PD puts employees exposed to certain oxidizing
agents at higher risk

A simple and inexpensive test can detect G6PD

A number of companies have screened workers for
this deficiency as part of their hiring process when the
work entails exposure to oxidizing agents

It could be argued that this practice provides a type of
discrimination, but companies argue that they are
simply fulfilling their legal and moral obligation to
prevent injuries and damage to worker health

Life Insurance and
Genetic Testing

British life insurance companies can use
data from 8 genetic tests, including breast
cancer, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s, and (as
of 2000) Huntington’s disease

In the latter case, people who test positive
can be denied insurance (with the
exception of the basic life insurance
needed to buy a house in the U.K.)

Shouldn’t those who are free of a disease
pay lower rates than those who test

U.S. Insurance Providers

Some have recommended legislation be passed that
would prevent insurance companies from
discriminating on the basis of genetic information.
Some of the main stipulations of this proposal are:

IPs should be prohibited from using genetic
information to deny or limit any coverage

IPs should be prohibited from establishing differential
rates or premium payments based on genetic

IPs should be prohibited from requesting or requiring
collection or disclosure of genetic information

IPs and other holders of genetic information should
be prohibited from releasing genetic information
without prior consent of the individual

A number of factors must be considered to decide
whether an individual test is beneficial to the

Utility of Genetic Tests

Universal Screening for a Disease

Every pregnant woman in America is informed
of the availability of a test for Cystic Fibrosis

This is the 1st of nearly 400 genetic tests to be
implemented nationally

CF is the most common genetic disease for
Caucasians but not other populations

CF occurs in 1 out of 2,500 Caucasian births
but only 1 out of 17,000 African American ones

Moreover, the efficiency of detection is 85% in
Caucasians but ranges between 30
69% for
Caucasian populations

Screening for Cystic Fibrosis

Most experts agree that a universal test for CF
does not make sense

Nevertheless, the HMO Kaiser Permanente
conducted a pilot test

They offered the test to all Caucasian patients

1st, both parents were tested

if they were

the fetus could be tested

About 18,000 women have been screened to

90% of these have terminated their
pregnancy if the fetus was homozygous for CF

Genomic Diversity Banks

In 1996, Kari Stefansson started a company
called deCODE

Their goal is to create genomic fingerprints for
the entire population of Iceland


Iceland is ideal for such a venture since the
majority of the population is descended from a
few European explorers and the people have
kept detailed family trees

Differences which lead to medical conditions
should be easier to find in such a population

Icelander’s Right to Privacy?

Iceland has a single medical provider, all
records are kept in the same database

deCODE purchased the medical records and
has correlated family relationships with medical

Every citizen will give blood to determine a
genetic fingerprint unless they opt out

Some physicians worry that patient
trust has been broken and that patients may be
less forth
coming with medical information

Estonia has expressed interest in forming
similar program

How Should the Public Be
Informed of New Discoveries?

News media outlets tend to over
findings, but most Americans do not
understand the scientific literature

The media has recently reported on the
discovery of a: “gay gene”, “smart gene”, “fat
gene”, “worry gene”, “Alzheimer’s gene”,
“cancer gene”, and “fountain
youth” gene

Most of the time, the fact that these are just
one of many genes affecting a given condition
or that environmental factors exist is buried in
the story of left out completely

Should We Clone Humans?

In 2001, a number of groups announced
that they would clone a human by 2003

However, these groups have little
credibility within the scientific community
and include the Raelian cult (who believe
life was produced by extra

In Jan. of 2003 it was claimed that a clone
had been born but this is now thought to
have been a hoax

Despite this, it is likely that some group will
attempt to clone a human in the future

Arguments Against Human Cloning

In 2001, Rudolf Jaenisch (an epigeneticist) and
Ian Wilmut (Dolly’s cloner) published a paper
called “Don’t Clone Humans!”

In it they described a number of failed attempted
to clone animals and health problems associated
with clones

In 2003, Dolly died at half the expected age

Epigenetic factors which may be altered in clones
include CpG methylation, chromatin structure,
and telomere length

Most have denounced human cloning at this time