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Topic section: Biotechnology
TOPIC SECTION:
Biotechnology
The ability of scientists to manipulate DNA has given an enormous boost to the development of biotechnology,
Picture: 02_10305337.jpg
Strain of genetically modified tomato used to make puree sold in some British supermarkets in the late 1990s.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 while at the same time triggering a

If a clone has the same DNA as its ‘parent’, does it have the separate human existence and the unknown potential of the ordinary person?

 major political debate about what is ‘natural’. Anticipating the debate during the early 1970s, scientists sought strict guidelines in an effort to protect their work. Against those fearful of danger to life and the environment, proponents of the new technology emphasised the potential benefits, while certain companies foresaw the opportunity to make huge profits.

The most likely money-making prospect seemed to be the imminent transfer of genes between species to produce proteins which would serve as drugs. For instance, a protein
Picture: 02_10319243.jpg
Tracy the sheep (1990-1997) who produced a chemical in her milk useful for sufferers of cystic fibrosis. This research programme has since been discontinued.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 which made cattle produce more milk could be made in an engineered bacterium. The use of this drug, bST, is still not permitted in Europe, even though it has been used in the USA for twenty years. The arguments concerning this drug are about ‘naturalness’, the health of cattle and the impact of a technology that would add to our milk surplus. The recent debates about genetically modified plants have many similarities to the arguments about bST, although organic farmers are also worried about the contamination of their ‘natural’ produce by engineered seeds.

On the other hand, when human insulin was made in a bacterium, it quickly became the drug of choice for diabetics. It replaced the not-quite-human insulin extracted from pigs. Many patients clearly benefited and there were few complaints.
Picture: 02_10321271.jpg
The mass production of human insulin using bacteria was developed at a plant in Speke near Liverpool owned by Dista Products during the early 1980s.
Credit: Copyright © Alan Stones/Science & Society Picture Library

In the 1980s, new diagnostic tests were developed for a number of genetic diseases, with the obvious implication that potential disability could, and probably would, be prevented by abortion. Unfortunately, this created a link between abortion and biotechnology in the public imagination, a link that has been strengthened by the possibility of growing cells from fertilised human eggs into replacement organs.

The possibility of cloning adult animals was first realised with the birth of Dolly the sheep in 1997. This led to questions about the ethics of cloning humans. If a clone has the same DNA as its ‘parent’, does it have the separate human existence and the unknown potential of the ordinary person? While many scientists dismiss the cloning of adult people as little more than science fiction, some have already proposed the cloning of human organs for use in replacement surgery. This has inevitably revived the debate about the ‘specialness’ of the naturally produced human body.

 
 
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Topic section: Cloning and Genetic Modification
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Differences over the nature of life were particularly vigorous at the time of the decoding of DNA in 1953. The arguments of that time have had their legacy in contemporary standoffs over genetic modification and cloning.  > more

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Topic section: Life as special and natural
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The writers C S Lewis (author of the Narnia books) and JRR Tolkien were staunch opponents of the reduction of life to chemicals. Lewis parodied his scientific colleagues mercilessly just at the time DNA was being sequenced.  > more
 
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