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Beyond Biotechnology

Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Beyond Biotechnology
    Book Description:

    In 2001 the Human Genome Project announced that it had successfully mapped the entire genetic content of human DNA. Scientists, politicians, theologians, and pundits speculated about what would follow, conjuring everything from nightmare scenarios of state-controlled eugenics to the hope of engineering disease-resistant newborns. As with debates surrounding stem-cell research, the seemingly endless possibilities of genetic engineering will continue to influence public opinion and policy into the foreseeable future. Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering distinguishes between the hype and reality of this technology and explains the nuanced and delicate relationship between science and nature. Authors Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott evaluate the current state of genetic science and examine its potential applications, particularly in agriculture and medicine, as well as the possible dangers. The authors show how the popular view of genetics does not include an understanding of the ways in which genes actually work together in organisms. Simplistic and reductionist views of genes lead to unrealistic expectations and, ultimately, disappointment in the results that genetic engineering actually delivers. The authors explore new developments in genetics, from the discovery of "non-Darwinian" adaptative mutations in bacteria to evidence that suggests that organisms are far more than mere collections of genetically driven mechanisms. While examining these issues, the authors also answer vital questions that get to the essence of genetic interaction with human biology: Does DNA "manage" an organism any more than the organism manages its DNA? Should genetically engineered products be labeled as such? Do the methods of the genetic engineer resemble the centuries-old practices of animal husbandry? Written for lay readers, Beyond Biotechnology is an accessible introduction to the complicated issues of genetic engineering and its potential applications. In the unexplored space between nature and laboratory, a new science is waiting to emerge. Technology-based social and environmental solutions will remain tenuous and at risk of reversal as long as our culture is alienated from the plants and animals on which all life depends.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2947-1
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  5. Part I: Genetic Engineering and Agriculture

    • Chapter 1 Sowing Technology
      (pp. 3-15)

      Drive the Nebraskan backroads in July, and you will encounter one of the great technological wonders of the modern world: thousands of acres of corn extending to the vanishing point in all directions across the table-flat landscape. It appears as lush and perfect a stand of vegetation as you will find anywhere on earth—almost every plant, millions of them, the same uniform height, the same deep shade of green, free of blemish, emerging straight and strong from clean, weed-free soil, with the cells of every plant bearing genetically engineered doom for the over-adventurous worm.

      If you reflect on the...

    • Chapter 2 Golden Genes and World Hunger: Let Them Eat Transgenic Rice?
      (pp. 16-27)

      Having become disenchanted with the early hype about genetic engineering, we were struck by the announcement in 1999 of a new genetically engineered crop that looked less like an arbitrary exercise in the manipulation of nature than an altruistic attempt to improve the human condition. If biotechnology can display beneficent potentials, how better to do it than by placing a daily bowl of genetically engineered “golden rice” on the dinner tables of millions of Asian children, thereby saving them from immense suffering?

      This hope, many researchers believe, is now nearing fulfillment. But a full conversation around that envisioned bowl of...

    • Chapter 3 Will Biotech Feed the World? The Broader Context
      (pp. 28-41)

      When giving presentations about genetic engineering and agriculture, we find that one of the most frequent questions is about feeding the world. How are we going to feed a growing human population, when already many millions of people around the globe are undernourished and suffering from hunger and even starvation? On a planet of more than six billion people, more than 800 million are undernourished (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2005). Proponents of modern industrial agriculture believe genetically engineered crops hold the promise of a new Green Revolution, a revolution that will bring higher yields and nutritionally...

    • Chapter 4 We Label Orange Juice, Why Not Genetically Modified Food?
      (pp. 42-56)

      It is reasonable to expect that a label will tell you something significant about the food you buy. Because of widespread deceptive labeling, Congress began passing laws in the early 1900s to regulate food labels. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was first passed in 1938 and has been amended numerous times. In connection with the identity of food it states (in Section 401) that the FDA Secretary should make regulations when “such action will promote honesty and fair dealing with consumers.” On its Web site the FDA declares that it is “one of the nation’s oldest and most respected...

  6. Part II: Genes and Context

    • Chapter 5 Genes Are Not Immune to Context: Examples from Bacteria
      (pp. 59-63)

      One of the most widespread misconceptions concerning the nature of genes is that they have a defined and fixed function that allows them to operate the same in all organisms and environments. We have a picture of robust genes determining all the characteristics an organism has. And any given gene will do the same thing in a bacterium as in a corn plant or human being. It doesn’t care where it is. The gene bears its set of instructions wherever it goes and strictly carries out its duty.

      This picture informs genetic engineering. Take a gene from bacteria and put...

    • Chapter 6 The Gene: A Needed Revolution
      (pp. 64-71)

      This short chapter is about the gene and includes many statements about this central concept of modern biology from geneticists and from historians and philosophers of science. The quotes cited here are like footprints, indicating the pathway and evolution of modern genetics. A fascinating biography of a concept emerges. And the results of research in the past few decades have brought biology to a threshold that calls for a long-needed revolution in the way we interpret life.

      The concept of the gene was first conceived by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s. He never used the term “gene,” but spoke of...

    • Chapter 7 Reflections on the Human Genome Project
      (pp. 72-82)

      During the 1990s molecular biologists were fully engaged in a race to determine the complete DNA sequence in various organisms. And they succeeded—first in bacteria, then in yeast, and finally in a well-researched roundworm (C. elegans). In early 2000 the DNA sequence of the fruit fly, the genetic workhorse of the twentieth century, was completed. In June 2000, at the White House amid media fanfare, two genome sequencing teams announced that they had completed a “working draft” of the human genome. Their reports were published in February 2001 (International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium 2001; Venter et al. 2001). The...

    • Chapter 8 Me and My Double Helixes
      (pp. 83-96)

      “What will you have done to your newborn,” Bill McKibben (2003) asks, “when you have installed into the nucleus of every one of her billions of cells a purchased code that will pump out proteins designed to change her?” His answer is stark—and, we believe, misdirected:

      You will have robbed her of the last possible chance of understanding her life. Say she finds herself, at the age of sixteen, unaccountably happy. Is it her being happy—finding, perhaps, the boy she will first love—or is it the corporate product inserted within her when she was a small nest...

    • Chapter 9 Logic, DNA, and Poetry
      (pp. 97-108)

      In January 1956, Herbert Simon, who would later win the Nobel Prize in economics, walked into his classroom at Carnegie Institute of Technology and announced, “Over Christmas Allen Newell and I invented a thinking machine.” His invention was the “Logic Theorist,” a computer program designed to work through and prove logical theorems. Simon’s casual announcement—which, had it been true, would surely have rivaled in importance the Promethean discovery of fire—galvanized researchers in the discipline that would soon become known as artificial intelligence (AI). The following year Simon spoke of the discipline’s promise this way: “It is not my...

  7. Part III: To Be an Organism

    • Chapter 10 The Cow: Organism or Bioreactor?
      (pp. 111-122)

      The tall tree on the next page probably does not match your mental picture of a typical white oak (Quercus alba). The trunk appears disproportionately long and narrow and the crown is small compared to the trunk. Is this tree unhealthy? No. It is perfectly healthy, but it is shown out of context.

      Set in the middle of a forest, it would look like most of the other trees in a bottomland deciduous woodland in northeastern North America. You have to imagine this single tree surrounded on all sides by other trees of similar height with long trunks reaching skyward...

    • Chapter 11 The Forbidden Question
      (pp. 123-131)

      Few of us would want to condemn a wolf to the life of a house pet. But we can be quite sure that sometime in the human past wolves, or similar wild creatures, were in fact domesticated. Was this a bad thing? It does not seem that a dog whose business is herding sheep or retrieving fowl has such a bad life. Nor do these dogs seem perverse additions to the planet’s canine ranks.

      On the other hand, what about the monkeys given jellyfish-derived genes by researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, so that they will glow green...

    • Chapter 12 What Does It Mean to Be a Sloth?
      (pp. 132-154)

      We are losing animals. Not only numerically through the extinction of species, but we also are losing them in our understanding. Perhaps it might be better to say we’ve rarely taken animals as whole, integrated beings seriously, and therefore they have never really come into view for us. For that reason our scientific and technological culture can so casually manipulate what it does not know. The moment we get to know something more intimately, the less likely we are to treat it in a purely utilitarian fashion.

      Imagine a biotechnologist wondering what causes the sloth to be slow and pondering...

  8. Part IV: Science Evolving

    • Chapter 13 The Language of Nature
      (pp. 157-201)

      To judge from some of the ancient creation narratives, the world arose as a visible manifestation of speech. “In the beginning was the Word.” First there was formlessness and chaos, and then the divine voice flashed forth like lightning in the darkness. “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” The world began to assume visible, comprehensible form.

      Whatever we may now think of the old visions of creation, we can remain sure of one thing: without the speaking of the Word—without language—we would have no science, with its striking power to illuminate the world....

    • Chapter 14 Delicate Empiricism: Practicing a Goethean Approach to Science
      (pp. 202-228)

      I (Craig Holdrege) have vivid memories of Mr. Sinn’s ninth grade science class. We did experiments with glassware, tubes, and Bunsen burners—they were fun. But then Mr. Sinn taught us how to explain the results of our experiments. He described molecular processes that we didn’t see. These became schemes with letters and numbers on the blackboard. We now were supposed to know what had really been going on. And I was lost. I didn’t get it. What did the blackboard diagram have to do with what we’d been observing? This was an unsettling experience that had significant consequences: I...

  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 229-230)
  10. References
    (pp. 231-246)
  11. Index
    (pp. 247-262)