The Science of DNA and the Future of Mankind
Author: Enemona Greg Ademu (Mr.)
"We used to think that our fate was in our stars but now we know that, in large measure, our fate is in our genes". - James Watson
As our understanding of genetics continues to grow, one cannot but imagine what the future holds for mankind as we continue to unravel the secrets behind our very existence. It has been called the very "substance of life", the key to unlocking all of life's mysteries- the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
DNA is the genetic material of all living organisms through which information regarding the growth and development of an organism is carried and passed on. A segment or portion or part of the DNA is simply called a gene.
More than one hundred and fifty (150) years have now passed since the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel showed that traits or characters (genetic information) are passed on from parents to offsprings by invisible factors (now called genes) while sixty-four (64) years have also passed since Cambridge University scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the DNA helical structure. These two milestone events, many years apart, would forever change our world as we know it.
Today, the study of genes known simply as "Genetics" has impacted and continues to impact every facet of our life from research, medicine, agriculture, biodiversity and conservation, industries, criminal justice to even artworks. As such, it is at the forefront of every scientific research in the life sciences.
Recently, a group of international scientists from the Institute of Molecular Biology in Mainz, Germany published their research findings in the journal Genes and Development. They believe they have made a breakthrough in understanding the ageing process through genes that promote senescence; a finding that could have huge implications in finding a cure for degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer's. Research such as these, show how far we have come in answering some of life's most intriguing questions so as to better improve lives.
In medicine, the study of genes has totally revolutionized both preventive and curative medicine. For example, scientists now carry out Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) to identify genes responsible for certain human illnesses. As a follow up, gene therapy then allows for the replacement of defective genes with healthy ones to treat genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis and ADA (Adenosine Deaminase) deficiency. Put simply, the knowledge of genetics is being employed to produce more effective and efficient vaccines and drugs and in the development of diagnostic tools to identify diseases and so much more.
Also, agricultural practices have vastly improved through genetics. From plant and animal growth, enhancing of reproductive and health capacity, to the diagnosis and treatment of plant and animal diseases. This has led to the development of genetically modified crops and animals (still very controversial) through genetic engineering. These crops are modified to possess certain characteristics such as insect-resistance, herbicide-tolerance, drought-resistance, bigger but faster growth and development so as to combat the effects of global warming (climate change).
Across our industries, a wide range of bioactive compounds most especially enzymes are being synthesized commercially for a variety of industrial purposes. This has been made possible through the study of genes in various microbes such as bacteria. Specific bacteria are now being utilized to extract metals from their ores- a process known as Bioleaching.
In biodiversity, the use of genetics promises a whole lot in identifying the over eight (8) million species yet to be discovered (mostly microbes) and the conservation of species that are currently endangered, that is, in serious danger of going extinct. Just last week in the Solomon Islands, a new species- a giant tree dwelling rat was discovered by researchers. It is four times the size of a normal rat and was successfully distinguished from other members of its taxonomic family by its genes and considerable large skull size (morphology).
Also, the criminal justice system all over the world has come a long way since the ancient Roman times when criminal trials relied on both the person accused of a crime and the accuser to give speeches before a forum based on their sides of the story. As such, the individual with the best argument would determine the outcome of the case. All of that would change drastically as we discovered that the DNA was a blueprint molecule for every organism since no two individuals have the same DNA fingerprint. Therefore, analysis of DNA samples allow for the precise identification of a suspect and are now widely accepted as evidence in law courts.
It is good news then that Lagos state, Nigeria has now set up a DNA Forensic Centre- the first of its kind in the country but there is still much to be done like setting up a DNA Database for the country and her citizens. We must realize that there is an urgent and widespread need for the use of forensic science in solving crime investigations in the country today. The present day picture of crime investigation and prosecution of criminals is a really sad story to behold, I must say. As a result, innocent persons are accused and tried wrongly.
However, for all the good potential the study of genes possesses, it continues to generate a lot of debates and controversies concerning its usage. As it is often said: "Science is neither good nor bad". A prime example of this statement is the creation of the atomic bomb.
Thus, the precise application of genetics generates a lot of moral and ethical considerations. Step forward, Biotechnology!
Biotechnology is simply the use of living organisms or biological processes to produce useful products. As a field of study, Biotechnology successfully incorporates the knowledge of Genetics, Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology. It has been termed the "Science of this Age".
Biotechnology allowed for the conversion of the science of DNA (genetics) into a technology- a unique kind of technology. I say "unique" because previous technology in various fields impacted humans and our lives but did not have the potential to change human nature- biotechnology simply does through genetic engineering.
For example, gene therapy has the possibility of tampering with the human gene pool when defective genes in germ cells (sex or reproductive cells) are replaced rather than somatic (body) cells to treat a genetic disorder. Hence, creating difficult moral choices for individuals, their families and health professionals as a result of their deeply held religious beliefs and traditions.
Another example is the use of genetically modified crops, with the biggest concern about its consumption centered on human health and the environment as we can not specifically ascertain for now, what the long-term health and ecological side effects might be.
Furthermore, with the aid of the new gene-editing tool CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), we would eventually win the war against cancer, that I am sure of, for it is just a matter of time. However, CRISPR provides some very daunting prospects which have raised serious ethical concerns such as Species Rebirth (the woolly mammoth or even a dinosaur could be brought back to life), Designer or Perfect Children, that is, designing babies with certain desirable traits such as increased strength and super athleticism, heightened intelligence and so on (the perfect soldier, you might say). This might trigger unforeseen consequences.
So, putting all these in mind about the application of the science of DNA- pros and cons, good and bad, highs and lows (whichever you want to call it), what does the future really hold for mankind? Some say it holds for a brave new world- a future of endless possibilities as explained above, while for others, it is far from simple. They believe we must proceed with caution for with great knowledge (genetics) comes great responsibility.
For me, the real question thus remains; "Could there be a Frankenstein's monster lurking in this Pandora Box called the DNA?" The Future Shall Tell!
About Author / Additional Info:
Scientist, Academic and Sportscaster.
Holds a B. Sc. in Biochemistry from Godfrey Okoye University, Nigeria and currently pursuing an M. Sc. in Biotechnology at the Nigerian Defence Academy.