Frontiers of Science:

Custom-Ordered Plants and Animals

By Dr. Sherwood B. Idso

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    “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” He gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.” He said it not once, but twice, adding that man’s dominion should be over “every living thing.”

    Man has used this God-given authority. Sometimes he has had good results and sometimes otherwise, depending upon the righteousness of his goals and his ways of reaching them. For many years men were farmers and shepherds. They tilled the ground and cared for their flocks. In time, they became more and more adept at it. They began to do more than just take care of their crops and animals; they began to change them. This is how the sciences of genetics and plant and animal breeding were developed. Now greatly improved crops and livestock are possible.

    But the best (or worst) is yet to come: Man is starting to actually create new life forms! He can’t create them out of nothing, mind you, but he can rearrange existing characteristics of certain plants and animals. The name of this new science is genetic engineering.

    Traditionally, trial-and-error procedures are used in plant breeding. Cross-pollination is one way to combine desirable traits of crop varieties. This is how the high-yielding rice and wheat plants of the “green revolution” came about. In 1970, agriculturist Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with rice and wheat.

    Modern scientists have come a long way. Now they work directly with genetic materials that tell living cells what to do. With complex new tools and techniques, these men and women can take specific genetic traits, called information codes, from one organism and put them into another organism. By doing this, the second organism has the same traits that the first one did.

    For example, scientists at the University of Wisconsin recently transferred a gene from a bean plant to a sunflower plant, resulting in a plant called the “sunbean.” Although this gene transfer did not create a greatly improved plant, the new technique could someday be very useful. Important crops may be better able to resist diseases, develop an immunity to weed sprays, produce their own insecticides, and even create their own nitrogen fertilizer.

    Gene-transfer techniques may also be used in medicines. Scientists have already caused certain bacteria to produce many drugs that are either impossible or too expensive to make in any other way. One such drug is insulin, which is so important to diabetics. Another is a substance called interferon. Many doctors think interferon is a “wonder drug” that could be effective in treating some forms of cancer.

    There are over two thousand human diseases that are caused by the inheritance of a defective gene. Right now, there are no cures for these maladies. Genetic engineering offers hope that one day these defects may be eliminated.

    Of course, evil as well as good can come from genetic engineering. Indeed, when genetic scientists first realized that they would succeed, they began to worry. Would someone change a presently harmless bacteria into a killer we couldn’t stop? Would some arrogant scientist decide that he had the power of God and try to redesign the human race? Satan wanted to do something like that in our premortal life. Perhaps such things are too farfetched to ever happen. But it is a sad fact that each new advancement in knowledge has generally been used for evil as well as for good. That is why we need good and honest women and men to enter this new field of science. We must see that good prevails!

    Photos courtesy Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

    1. Genetic engineers choose bacteria colonies to be “carriers” in transferring genes.

    2. A bacterial extract is prepared to transfer a gene from one organism to another.

    3. A scientist puts protein genes from bean plants into sunflower plants.

    4. The sunflower plants are kept in growth chambers and closely watched. The experiment was successful, and the bean genes became part of the sunflower plants.

    5. Safety is important in genetic engineering. Work on animal diseases, for instance, is carried out on this isolated island off the east coat of the United States.

    6. Inside the laboratory, workers like this one use sterilized equipment and hold materials under well-ventilated safety hoods.

    7. This microbiologist studies information about genes that will make a vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease in animals.

    8. Purified vaccine is injected into cattle to help them become immune to this serious disease.