Strange New World

by Martin Overby

We live in extraordinary times. Man has discovered and controlled nuclear energy, devised a machine (computer) that can manipulate huge quantities of information, visited the moon by space travel, and lastly, replicated a living mammal. The 'big' three we all have come to terms with, the fourth is a Pandora's box of controversy and possibility. The catalyst of this upheaval is a lowly sheep named Dolly whose debut is only the tip of the iceberg.

How could a sheep's' birth compare with man's other 20th Century triumphs? To put it simply, Dolly is a twin of her mother -- also known as a clone. Twins are born of the same mother at the same time. To selectively produce a twin in another generation means an ability to control the process of biological reproduction. The technology becomes controversial when employed to make human copies of another person (not possible yet). And further, what if you cloned humans but changed bits to make them 'better'? Perhaps another you -- with good eyesight and curly brown hair? Or a taller and stronger body? Could it be possible to improve intelligence genetically and instill that in a copy of us? These developments may be only a matter of time, but they call into question both our individuality and morality when we manufacture beings to our taste.

Another controversial technological breakthrough is called transgenic transplantation. This involves inserting genes from another species into a host species to produce desired side effects. This technique is being clinically tested using sheep to produce a human protein that can treat cystic fibrosis sufferers who lack that protein. The side-effects of adding new genes will need constant monitoring. Many genes work together within a cell to bring about a desired end; additional genes present throughout a cell's life could have unexpected results.

Although cloning has attracted our attention in the past few months, another major milestone to be completed within the next 5 years is called the Human Genome Project. This is a complete catalogue and analysis of the 100,000 or so genes that make up the human DNA code. Each Gene's function within a cell will be individually investigated. Medical science will be particularly interested in damaged or faulty genes, and how they can be repaired at the most fundamental level. Disease could be attacked from the inside out. If this sounds too good to be true -- did you ever think man would walk on the moon?

Engineers have just developed something called a 'Gene' chip. This tool can read (decipher) your genetic code from a tissue sample. Comparing the result with the Human Genome map, it is possible to look for specific mutations which are the hallmarks of diseases such as cancer. Gene chips are like computer chips -- made of silicon and etched with lasers forming intricate patterns genetic materials adhere to. These tools for accurate medical diagnosis of illness can be mass produced, as computer chips are, saving time and money. The first custom application of gene chip technology is used to determine the status of progressing HIV in a patient. The chip costs $45 but the scanner to read it is considerably more.

We've looked at a few possibilities and hinted at others. The ethical debate has just begun and public awareness of issues like cloning, genetic engineering, and genetic privacy is surprisingly uninformed. It seems that man's discovery of the splendors of creation, which God has allowed, brings with it great responsibilities. We recognize that the process of discovery in Genetics leads to questions that go to the root of man's being. Where did I come from? If we maintain we only 'came from our mother', then our shortsightedness will allow for unimagined monstrosities to take place in the name of science. Man will embark upon the impossible task of making a better man, and great evils will be accepted as a stepping stone to 'greater good'!

In the Garden of Eden, man chose the tree of knowledge of good and evil instead of the tree of life. This choice presents itself again in the dilemma of where to draw the line in the uses of knowledge gained about genetics. If we have found the key to life and arrogantly forget the Creator of it, then a misfortune as great as the loss of Eden is what we have to look forward to.

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