The techniques of genetic engineering are at the heart of biotechnology. Despite some controversy, genetic engineering has found many industrial applications in agriculture, medicine, and other biology-based businesses.
In 1953, English scientist Francis Crick and the American biologist James D. Watson discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), unlocking the secrets of the genetic mechanisms of reproduction. Within a few decades, the techniques of genetic engineering had increased scientists’ understanding of biological processes and allowed for alterations to living creatures, thereby creating new products, services, and industries.
Advances in bioscience often initially are criticized as meddling with nature. In the United States, genetic engineering became stigmatized because of an association with cloning (in which a genetically identical plant or animal is created), especially of human beings. Another related issue was the use in research of embryonic stem cells, which are favored for their ability to differentiate into other cell types. In 2001, President George W. Bush limited further research to sixty already existing embryonic stem-cell lines. Critics complained that such restrictions delay development of genetically based applications to treat illnesses or result primarily in shifting the locus of scientific work to nations without such restrictions.
Oregon State University professor Steve Strauss is among scientists working on genetically engineered poplar trees that resist pollution and grow faster.
Supporters of research in transgenic technology claim that critics succeed only in keeping from the world’s disadvantaged from benefiting from the science they need to stave off poverty and famine. Some scientists believe that underdeveloped parts of the world may offer the greatest potential for discovering genetic treasures that can enrich humanity’s medical resources while sustaining local economic development. Some critics argue that such technological fixes are ultimately counterproductive as they draw excessively on natural resources and run the risk of diminishing the gene pool, with the potential for catastrophic results.
However, many scientists think that genetic engineering is ultimately beneficial to agriculture, as it can help produce plants that are resistant to disease and insect infestation.
Paarlberg, Robert. Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. Roberts, Paul. The End of Food. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Wilson, Edward O. The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Food and Drug Administration
Health care industry