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Ethics and DNA Structure, Replication, and Technology

The rise and successful implementation of biotechnology has created a myriad of ethical concerns about the role of man in the environment, how to handle genetic knowledge, whether certain experiments are "ethically wrong," and what constitutes as property.

First, the rise of biotechnology has led to the use of genetically modified crops and animals. While the potential benefits of generating genetically modified crops were discussed in the Biotechnology section, such as improved crop yield, cheaper and more nutritious foods, and pharmaceutical plant/animal products, there are many ethical drawbacks.

The argument for most agricultural biotechnology is that poorer people will have better and more nutritious crops. Unfortunately, this comes at the potential expense of the ecosystem. Many genetically modified (GM) crops inadvertently cross-pollinate non-GM crops, creating GM hybrids. Therefore, there is no control of which crops are GM and which are not: for farmers who do not want to use GM crops, thereby respecting the wishes of the many consumers who still fear GM foods, this lack of control is a problem.

Golden rice is a GM rice crop that makes excess vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is a major problem in developing countries, causing night blindness, maternal mortality, complications in pregnancy, and difficulty fighting infections. However, many people oppose golden rice because they oppose all GM crops, based on the notion that GM crops reduce the biodiversity of other food crops. Others argue that GM crops, even though they help to feed the hungry and poor, do not help solve other larger issues of poverty. Still others prefer to have peanut butter and jelly. On paper, GM crops sound beneficial, but many worry about introduced genes in GM crops being transferred into non-GM crops.

Human cloning is almost universally opposed, however, many groups accept the use of cloned human organs for transplants. Cloned human organs and genetically modified pig organs have been proposed as a solution to the problem of the need for organs. However, animal rights groups question whether it is ethical to genetically modify animals. Cloned human organs have yet to become a reality, and many of the ethical concerns on human cloning are raised over the speculation on how this cloning will be performed.

With the rise of DNA sequencing, PCR, and increased medical funding, it has become easier to identify genetic sequences that are linked to various disorders. It has therefore become easier to identify whether an individual will develop a genetic disorder. However, is it right to allow an individual to live if they know they will develop a genetic disorder? Is it better to diagnose an individual with a genetic disorder if it could potentially have social and economical ramifications? Discovering you have certain diseases may affect someone hiring you for a job or how friends and family treat you. On one hand, knowledge is power, but on the other hand, too much knowledge can be dangerous.

Who should have access to your genetic information? Should health insurers be able to exclude you for coverage because they know your genomic sequence has many genes known to cause diseases? The major concern is that genetic tests cannot accurately predict that an individual will develop a disease, much like algebra tests do not necessarily determine how good you are in algebra (right, Ms. Smith?). Therefore, there is a chance that the individual will be diagnosed with a disease allele but will actually never develop the disease. With that in mind, it becomes even more important to think about how we handle genetic test results.

About 10-15 years ago, it became popular for biotech companies to patent genetic sequences that they performed research on. However, many question whether this is ethical. Can someone own a patent on a genetic sequence? What if you have a patented sequence in your DNA, do you need to pay a royalty to a company? Fortunately, the US Patent and Trademark Office has made patenting DNA much more difficult, requiring patent seekers prove that the genetic fragment is of "specific and substantial utility that is credible." However, some argue that these rules are still too lax, and that these patent holders hurt other research with their patents.

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