Study Guide

Biotechnology In the Real World

  • Ethics

    Biotechnology is moving forward at a rapid pace. Scientists are able to do what was once thought to be impossible. While the advances are beneficial in many aspects, not all of these are without serious ethical implications.

    Where should we draw the line? As we begin to learn more about which genes control which traits, will parents eventually be able to pick designer babies? Maybe they really want a little brown haired, blue-eyed girl. If science gets to the point where this is possible, is it ethical, and should it be allowed?

    The ethical implications regarding the source of stem cells have been hotly debated. For embryonic stem cell lines, an embryo had to have been destroyed to establish this cell line. Some people argue that the embryo (sometimes created by a fertility clinic and will never be used) will be destroyed, so why not use it for the advancement of science and medicine. Others argue that life has been destroyed. Research with stem cells from umbilical cords and induced pluripotent stem cells avoids these sticky issues.

    We talked about Dolly, the cloned sheep. What's next? How long until a human being is cloned? Should this be allowed?

  • Agriculture

    Did you know that selective breeding of animals and crops has been around for over a thousand years? Yes, this is also biotechnology.

    Scientists have introduced genes that make crops more weather and disease resistant. Some crops have been engineered to be resistant to herbicides so farmers can control weed growth without damaging crops. Others have been engineered for delayed ripening.

    This all sounds beneficial, but there is some concern surrounding these transgenic or genetically modified (GM) organisms and crops. GM crops are especially widespread. They are easy to produce because a new plant can grow from a single cell. Remember the carrots?

    Most GM foods found in the grocery stores in the US are corn and soybean crops. In the United States, GM foods don't need to be labeled. According to some groups, this is a cause for concern.

    Some worry about the exchange of genes that usually can happen with transgenic crops. What if a herbicide resistance gene is transferred to a species of weed, making it a super weed? All joking aside, this would create a serious problem in the agriculture industry.

    Others are concerned about the expression of the transgenes causing an allergic response in humans. While the use of biotechnology in agriculture can be very beneficial, it's not without raising some serious red flags.

  • Environment

    Why not let the bugs take care of some environmental issues? They are. To find out how, read on.

    Advances in biotechnology have allowed scientists to engineer microbes that can be useful in tackling some environmental problems. A type of bacteria called Alcanivorax can feed on oil that is spilled in the ocean. While they may not be able to completely eliminate all of the oil spilled in the Gulf in 2010, they certainly can help a little.

    Another type of bacteria, Geobacter, can make uranium insoluble. This prevents it from building up in groundwater. Scientists are still hammering out the mechanism, but this holds great promise 4.

    Believe it or not, bacteria found in panda poop may also help the environment. One of the obstacles in producing plant-based biofuels is the break down of the plant materials. A bacteria found in panda feces was discovered to accelerate the breakdown of a tough plant material called lignocellulose. This goes to show that pandas are good for many things in addition to eating bamboo and being adorable.

    Furthermore, scientists may be able to study bacteria such as those just mentioned and genetically engineer bugs to help out with environmental problems in more efficient and better ways.