The future of biology, a very popular topic among biologists, is closely related to the future of molecular biology and genetics. Recent technological developments have engendered rapid development in this area. And this, in turn, has highlighted the need for scientists as well as ethicists to think carefully so that they will not be blamed by future generations for their actions or lack thereof.
Before thinking about biology's future, we should classify the most important developments made during the 1990s. The first one is cloning, most notably the sheep Dolly, a development that is still quite controversial. The problem here is twofold: religious, for some people say that scientists want to play God by "creating"; and ethical, for it could involve cloning human beings to harvest their organs. Technically, this latter issue is not a big deal.
To deal with the first issue, we must understand the cloning process. Cloning is defined as the transfer of an ordinary cell nucleus to an egg with a depleted nucleus. Scientists have done this with frogs for years. But when they began to use mammals, people began to pay more attention.
Cloning is not creation, for it uses an existing genome encoded in an existing nucleus with a natural (but slightly modified) egg. So, the resulting organism is no more than a copy of the organism already created by the Creator.
In other words, cloning is like a copier: if you photocopy a book, you cannot claim that the copier wrote that book, even if there are some changes (e.g., lighter ink or different colors). Even if scientists one day change a portion of the genome prior to cloning so that the clone will have a different physical property, they still will be doing no more than making some small changes on a great piece of art already designed and created in a wonderful way.
The second issue, that of cloning people, is also important. The American government has already outlawed it. Why would someone want to clone himself or herself or someone else? There could be several reasons. First, to live forever, which is impossible. Even if everything were to work perfectly, the clone would be an entirely "new" person with a unique personality, for its environment would be an important factor in its development.
Second, to use the clone as an organ donor or for some other reason. A clone's organs would not be rejected by the recipient's immune system. However, cloning a human being just to harvest its organs is the same as killing someone for his or her organs. Although cloning now is a technically very painful and long process, advancements in biomedical technology probably will make it much easier in a few years, and available to those who can afford it.
Clearly, this process does not involve creating a new person. However, it does raise ethical complications, such as the ones mentioned above. To allay some of the public's concerns, scientists should explain that "cloning" does not mean "creation."
The second area that still needs a great deal of work is the manipulation, mainly in embryos, of an organism's genetic code. This is already being done in many species, such as bacteria, viruses, yeast, frogs, chickens, pigs, monkeys, and mice. Researchers and scientists can change these organisms' genes at the embryonic stage with great ease, so that the resulting organisms will have specific features. Through such manipulation, scientists strive to achieve a better understanding of various underlying biological and metabolism-related principals. This is not done extensively in human embryos, nor is it totally banned. For example, in vitro fertilization involves separating human eggs that are defective in their mitochondrial DNA from their mitochondria and replacing them with normal ones. Although the resulting embryo's genomic DNA is unchanged, its mitochondrial DNA is replaced. This can be considered genetic manipulation to some extent. This leaves two questions: Will we allow the genetic manipulation of human embryos? Does this mean creation to some extent? Let's assume that a couple cannot have a healthy child because of a serious illness. You can try to convince this family that they should forego having a baby, since the genetic manipulation of human embryos is banned. In the case of genetically inherited severe illnesses or some pre-birth vaccinations against AIDS, genetic manipulation of the eggs or the embryo can be a powerful method in the future. But there are consequences.
First, right now we do not have the necessary technology to guarantee completely safe genetic manipulation. But since technology develops incredibly fast, we might be able to do so within the next decade. We should use this time to prepare answers to the ethical questions and developments that are sure to arise. Second, although this technology will be developed primarily for disease control and prevention, some will use it to manipulate an embryo's physical or mental properties, such as increasing its mental power or changing its eye color. Of course, this technology will be available only to rich people first, which means that their children will be more skillful. This can be considered unethical, but is it really all that different from rich people using already existing specific drugs or surgical techniques that they can afford? Third, does this mean "creation" to some extent? It does not, for the scientist is only manipulating the existing genetic code so that it will assume another form in the other already-existing recipient. Even if these are new codes, they still coded by the same general principal that was created by the ultimate Creator.
As technology develops, it brings new ethical questions to the fore of the public consciousness, as well as new ways to increase our knowledge of how the universe works. Molecular biology and genetics are important branches of science that develop quicker than many others. All such developments, regardless of field, should be explained to the public clearly to avoid misunderstanding. We do not need to see a repeat of what happened after Dolly's clone was introduced to the world.
- Lodish, Harvey et al. Molecular Cell Biology. New York: Scientific American Books, 1986.
- Lewin, Benjamin. Genes VI. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.