Transgenics refers to those specific genetic engineering processes that remove genetic material from one species of plant or animal and add it to a different species.
The field of transgenics allows scientists to develop organisms that express a novel trait not normally found in a species; for example, potatoes that are protein rich, or rice that has elevated levels of vitamin A (known as “golden rice”). Transgenics may be also used to save endangered species such as the American Chestnut tree, which is currently being repopulated by Chinese-American chestnut hybrids specifically engineered with a genetic resistance to the chestnut blight—the deadly fungus that nearly decimated native populations in the early 1900s.
Transgenic biotechnology presents an exciting range of possibilities, from feeding the hungry to preventing and treating diseases; however, these promises are not without potential peril. Some of the issues that need to be considered are the following:
- If the blending of animal and human DNA results, intentionally or not, in chimeric entities possessing degrees of intelligence or sentience never before seen in nonhuman animals, should these entities be given rights and special protections?
- What, if any, social and legal controls or reviews should be placed on such research?
- What unintended personal, social, and cultural consequences could result?
- Who will have access to these technologies and how will scarce resources—such as medical advances and novel treatments—be allocated?
- What, if any, health risks are associated with transgenics and genetically modified foods?
- Are there long-term effects on the environment when transgenic or genetically modified organisms are released in the field?
- Should research be limited and, if so, how should the limits be decided? How should the limits be enforced nationally and internationally?
- Are there fundamental issues with creating new species?
- Are species boundaries “hard” or should they be viewed as a continuum? What, if any, consequences are there of blurring species boundaries?
- Are chimeras and transgenics more likely to suffer than “traditional” organisms?
- Will transgenic interventions in humans create physical or behavioral traits that may or may not be readily distinguished from what is usually perceived to be “human”?
- What, if any, research in genetic engineering should be considered morally impermissible and banned (e.g., research undertaken for purely offensive military purposes)?
- Will these interventions redefine what it means to be “normal”?
The Issue of Species Boundaries
Some individuals argue that crossing species boundaries is unnatural, immoral, and in violation of God’s laws, which presumes that species boundaries are fixed and readily delineated.15 However, several books and journal articles demonstrate that the concept of fixed species boundaries continues to be a hotly debated topic. Some bioethicists point out that a variety of species concepts exist: biological, morphological, ecological, typological, evolutionary, and phylogenetic, to name a few. All of these definitions of what a species is reflect both changing theories and the varying purposes for which individuals conceptualize and utilize different species.20 If species boundaries are simply a matter of a naming convention, and there are no truly fixed boundaries to cross, then many philosophical objections to transgenics are rendered less problematic.
In addition to the issue of species boundaries, there are other issues that need to be considered and discussed prior to large-scale acceptance and usage of transgenics and other genetic engineering research, including:
- the risks and benefits of the experimental use of animals;
- the risk of creating new diseases—for which there is no treatment—by combining animal DNA or human DNA with plant DNA;
- the potential long-term risks to the environment;
- the potential for increased suffering of transgenic organisms. Various bioethicists, environmentalists, and animal rights activists have argued that it is wrong to create animals that would suffer as a result of genetic alteration (for example, a pig with no legs) and that such experimentation should be banned.
Note: I would add many of these ethical issues are from the perspective there could be some control/management/regulating of biological manipulations. I believe numerous additional ethical questions arise when you introduce uncertainty over ‘who uses and how’.