Bioengineering: The key to a better life or Frankenstein’s monster?

The field of bioengineering is a convoluted and daunting subject for most. The word itself is hard to conceptualize. Many people can visualize the work of electrical engineers or even chemical engineers, but bioengineering seems to imply the application of engineering principles to life itself. However absurd this may sound, it is the correct definition. Bioengineering is a massive field that encompasses genetic testing, micromachines and robotics, prosthetics, tissue regeneration, and stem cell research. This field is incredibly useful and very hotly debated. Any time stem cells are mentioned out in contemporary society, someone sounds the battle cry and a pleasant political discussion on ethics becomes a knockout, drag out free for all.

One of the main arguments against bioengineering is that humans are not fit to play the role of god. ONe of the main examples is the development of transgenic animals, or animals with specific genetic qualities that allow for the study of those particular attributes. For example, Harvard University received a patent for their “oncomouse” in 1987. The “oncomouse” is a transgenic mouse that is highly prone to developing cancer. Aside from the fact that patenting living things is ridiculous, many people feel that the development of terminally ill organisms is not an ability we should have. If we can control this attribute, what’s going to stop us from genetic enhancement, which leads into the next topic.

Another main concern about bioengineering is centered around the idea of eugenics. Webster’s dictionary defines eugenics as the “the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).” This theory is particularly entwined with the role genetic testing and genetic technology and therapy that currently exist and are in development. Many opponents worry that in the future, babies will be more “engineered” than “born.” Eye and hair color, weight, build, athletic and intellectual ability are all traits that can be improved through the use of genetic techniques that are in development.

While there are many scary thoughts and possibilities that surround genetic engineering, the field is less about controlling what it means to be human and more about improving the quality of life that exists. There is a plethora of information to be gained about human growth and development from stem cells, and there are more ethical and humane ways of harvesting them than there were in the 1990’s when the debate emerged.  The use of stem cells has also been shown to be effective in treating disease in many animal models. Adult stem cells have the potential to replace the cells that become erythrocytes that are damaged during chemotherapy. Stem cells have also been shown to heal the lungs of newborn animals, which may offer the possibility of treating premature babies.

The role of bioengineering in genetic disease is also less about eugenics and more about testing and treatment, though eugenics certainly remains a dark, ominous cloud upon the horizon. Genetic testing functions to determine if people are carriers for certain diseases, like Huntington’s Disease or Angelman’s Syndrome. There exists a rift between the testing and treatment, however. Current technology only allows for testing to be done, not significant treatment. Sometimes this can affect the quality of life for the the people being tested. If there is not a significant treatment, many people are hesitant to get tested in the first place.

In reality, bioengineering is incredibly useful and only becomes controversial when it is applied to humans. For example, bioengineering allows us to develop microbes that can digest oil while producing no harmful side effects. Recently, bioengineers from Korea have genetically modified E. coli to allow it to produce polylactic acid, a main ingredient in plastics and rubber. This mechanism is remarkably efficient and does not require the fossil fuels, chemical solvents, and time constraints of the current mechanism. The transgenic E. coli can produce the polylactic acid in a single step fermentation process, as opposed to the conventional two-step fermentation. No one is arguing that this is unethical or immoral because who wouldn’t want to clean up an oil spill or make plastic production more efficient?

The battle over bioengineering will continue to rage while the topic are fueled by religion and politics. However, it is important to note that we all benefit from bioengineering on a daily basis, whether it is directly through a heart implant, a genetic test, a prosthetic limb or indirectly through the tests conducted by researchers on cancer, vitamin consumption, or the Human Genome Project. Like it or not, bioengineering is here to stay. Now we, the villagers, need to decide if we accept Frankenstein’s monster who offers peace and friendship, or do we chase it away with torches and pitchforks thereby transforming it into an evil abomination?


~ by benjamingolden2010 on November 28, 2009.

8 Responses to “Bioengineering: The key to a better life or Frankenstein’s monster?”

  1. well as one of those the Frankensteins monster could save, welcome to the neighborhood heres your welcome basket, trash pickup is on Mondays and Thursdays. we need to approach this with our heads and a open mind. not ignorance and superstition like the previous president in the US had. it could run amok and have horrible effects like a horror movie but it could save billions of lives in the long run. we need to grow up and be adults about how it can be used and abused and learn how to do the right things beore it gets to that point.

  2. I concur with blog post in that bioengineering is an extremely important tool and we should pursue it. Anything in the world can be used to do harm to humanity if it falls in the wrong hands. For this reason, it is important to see the implication of bioengineering research case by case. Bioengineering could help us understand the human body at molecular level and create solutions to ever expanding health problems. However, it is also important to make sure it does not go in the direction that is harmful to living things.

  3. I understand all of the important things that have come from bioengineering, however I still don’t know if I would agree with it. First, Chu chu points out that is is important to make sure it does not go in the direction that is harmful to living things. I would be curious how this would be controlled? I suppose even with strict regulations on bioengineering, if someone wanted to create something harmful they would find a way to do it. I think that regulating the use of bioengineering would be difficult, especially the more prevalent it becomes.
    Also, you state “Many opponents worry that in the future, babies will be more ‘engineered’ than ‘born.’ Eye and hair color, weight, build, athletic and intellectual ability are all traits that can be improved through the use of genetic techniques that are in development.” I would like to point out the social inequalities that would be tied to this. Bioengineering a child that would have higher intellectual abilities or whatever the desired trait, would have to be as costly procedure. Thus, we would only be furthering the stratification of society by creating a way for individuals with the monetary means to create designer babies. To the rest of the world, well, that would most likely not be an option.
    Last, you state “For example, bioengineering allows us to develop microbes that can digest oil while producing no harmful side effects.” My problem here is the “nor harmful side effects” statement. Right now we cannot see harmful side effects, but 60+ years ago we also did not see the harmful side effects to DDT. I am just skeptical of the notion that bioengineering can have no harmful side effects, it is a relatively new field, one I think we should approach with caution.
    I guess, overall I am supportive of bioengineering, but with strong reservations. I think that strict regulation would need to be in place, that “designer babies” should be steered clear of, and the scientific community will need to be diligent about looking for possible harms that would rise over time.

  4. Just to throw in my two cents, I believe that there will always be people that use science to do terrible and inhumane things. A fear of these people should not cause us to block off an entire branch of scientific discovery and research. The continuation of Einstein’s work on special relativity (E = mc^2) is an example of how science can progress when unhindered by politics into new and unforeseen directions. Though this progression produced the nuclear bomb that has caused horrendous carnage, it has also produced the technology for nuclear energy. Instead of regulations, I believe it comes down to the responsibility of the scientist to be sure that their research is for the benefit of humanity, thus allowing scientists the fullest extent possible for their research.

  5. There’s been a lot said about this post, and I just have a few things to add.

    (1) I understand Jamie’s reservations and the “good vs. evil” debate, but the “evil” products of science are inevitable to avoid. The first choice would be to have an ethical scientist–promoting the good for humanity. However, didn’t the creator of the means for the atomic bomb intend for its use to be positive and not a death weapon? Basically, even if a good scientists creates with good intentions, the future uses of that invention is never known. Is there a way to prevent the bad use of things?…maybe by using eugenics to kill of all of the evildoers in the world! (Completely kidding) I have no answer, and I don’t think anyone does. I feel like this just gets into philosophy and why evil exists. Basically, we at some point need to trust in the good of people but at the same time be aware of the bad that could happen, and if something bad does appear then immediately address the situation and prevent that same thing from happening again.

    (2) I have a few problems with people’s understanding of bioengineering terminology. I think a path of error in these bioengineering debates is that terms are not used properly.

    Eugenics more so deals with the ethics of controlling reproductive rights…not as much directing the path of a embryo once an egg is fertilized, which I feel is what most procedures do. But if even if procedures occur before fertilization to direct the genes a baby has or what alleles are expressed, it is still not controlling if a woman can have a baby or not. However, I do agree with Jamie that this would cost money and further distinguish the socioeconomic classes and increase educational disparities.

    Stem cell transplant really needs to be defined for the public population. I interned at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in the oncology unit over a winter term. In that unit, that have a stem cell transplant section. The doctor had to address the medical students and residents about how stem cell transplants are not killing babies. Not that they didn’t know that already, but obviously the issue has been brought up to him enough that he thought it was time worthy to discuss. Once you go through chemo, your cells are bad, wiped out. You need new ones. That’s when the stem cell transplant comes in–basically you get new cells from a donor.

    Basically, I think it would help for terms to be defined in functional manners to help people understand what they are actually arguing about. These are just a few examples of how people in these arguments mix up the terms and therefore may end up arguing the wrong side of topics.

  6. I have two things to add as well. First of all, if you haven’t seen the movie, GATTACA, you should. It was made in 1997, so it doesn’t deal with all of the current science on bioengineering, however, the message deals heavily with many of the things all of you have been talking and worrying about in your post/replies. The basic plot is that sometime in the future, biological engineering has progressed enough to allow human mothers to engineer their children, creating an elite society of people who are better intellectually and physically than “natural-born” humans. In this future society, natural birth is seen as inferior and anyone not genetically engineered is denied a great deal of rights, including those that keep them from getting a decent job or living in the best places, etc. Additionally, everyone is branded by their genetic code and there is a little bit of Big Brother government going on. The main character is a “natural-born” human that infiltrates the ranks of the elite engineered population to try to realize his dream of becoming an astronaut. The movie presents many of the concerns about genetic engineering, but with an interesting ending. I’m not going to give it away though in case you haven’t seen it. This is definitely worth watching though.

    Second, if anyone is interested in studies of limb regeneration, I have two interesting articles you might want to check out. As mammals, we have extremely limited abilities to regenerate lost limb tissue – it is confined to the very tips of our fingers. However, many amphibians, urodeles especially, have the ability to regenerate whole limbs at any stage in their lives. The first article talks about the basics of limb regeneration in amphibians and the second article talks about trying to induce mouse muscle cells to begin the regenerative process. In the mouse paper, they found that mammals retain the signaling pathway necessary for limb regeneration, but we lack the actual signal. Wouldn’t it be cool if science could unlock the means to re-form this signal in a mammal?

    If you are interested in this kind of thing, you also might want to check out Professor Janet Vaglia’s research on tail regeneration in amphbians.

  7. I agree mainly with Kasey and Elizabeth’s posts. While we should approach genetic engineering with caution we should also believe in the positive outcomes that may occur. Even looking back on the few decades since we were able to use bioengineering of bacteria there have been major implications in medical diagnosis and treatment. Using bacteria with cloned human genes has allowed for the production of proteins in mass quantities that can be easily isolated. As a result first stage in vitro studies may be carried out to characterize these proteins and down the line lead to cause for animal and human model testing of drugs.

    Also, I would like to point to the long tradition of genetic manipulation of agricultural plants. For a very long time people have been crossing soy and corn to produce lines that are more suited to an environment or have higher yields.

    The ethical implications of genetic modification are profound, but as has been said before the science or technology shouldn’t be restricted outright. Oversight by the individual organizations that are conducting or funding research should be taken. Additionally, institutional bans based on religious or ‘societal’ ethical standards should not muddle with the potential of engineering. There are many benefits that may be reaped from the use of this technology and I look forward to the benefits. I’d be more worried about strict paternalism in information technology and control by surveillance systems than the potential Frankenstein creatures some fear.

  8. Well, the issue of “good vrs. evil” or “humans playing God” or “right vrs wrong”? is minimal in comparison to the devastation it might cause if the best feats in such human applied bioengineering technology got into the wrong hands in the near future. Imagine what a boost it would be to the terrorism industry: Superhuman war heroes battling for the wrong cause, could imply the end of the human race as we know it, or at least death to countless innocent people. This might sound slightly comical, maybe a little unrealistic but “what if?”

    But we can’t ignore the positives. Providing cures and making humans immune and resistant to all kinds of diseases that we’ve struggled with in the past and continue to struggle with today will be great. If cancer can be as common as a common cold thanks to bioengineering then applying it to humans is something I believe we can all embrace. I think the major question is, are we willing to risk, some of the negative consequences of human applied bioengineering gone wrong (bad mutation), or such technology in the hands of the wrong people? Is the world ready for that?

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