Genetic Scissors—Snap with caution!
- Tomatoes for controlling blood pressure.
What do you find weird about this grocery list? Since when do we add the nutritional benefits of items in the grocery list? Hold on! It’s not to encourage you to eat your five a day but “Tomatoes for controlling blood pressure” is a special type of gene-edited tomatoes that has recently been licensed for sale in Japan. These types of tomatoes have been genetically tweaked to add this characteristic of lowering blood pressure. ¹
This is not just limited to Japan as gene-edited soya bean has been on the USA market since 2019 and gene editing of crops and livestock may soon be permitted in UK for the first time. ²
Before we delve deep into this topic, let’s understand the meaning of gene editing.
“Genome editing is a method that let scientists change the DNA of organisms including plants, animals and humans. This technology acts like a scissors, cutting the DNA at a specific spot. The scientists can remove, add or replace the DNA from where it was cut.” ³
All over the world scientists are discussing the opportunities and risks of gene editing.
In agriculture, the gene editing is promoted by saying that it can breed resilient, high yield plants to combat famine and can increase the medicinal value of food. Gene editing application is in progress in forty-six different crop species. But it does not come without a safety concern. Altering genes at cellular level can have unintended consequences both within an organism and in relation to its wider ecosystem. Critics warn against an unpredictable impact of using gene edited crops on human health and the environment. ⁴
I would highly recommend you listen to this show on Sound Cloud that contains an interesting discussion about various aspects of gene editing in agriculture. ⁵
The potential for gene therapy to address human disease has been evident from some years. It involves replacement of faulty genes to cure hereditary diseases, cancers, Harlington’s disease, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis ⁷ but the big question is where to draw the line between disease treatment and building “Designer Humans.” Here it will be relevant to make a distinction between somatic and germline gene therapies. Somatic gene therapy targets cells like lung cells, blood cells or skin cells and is not transferred to the next generation. Germline gene therapy however involves application of gene editing to eggs, sperms, and embryos. ⁶
Intervention in both cases is at cellular level and can produce unwanted and off target effects.
These effects are unpredictable and it’s a blind alley. There are many ethical questions surrounding this debate like:
- How to draw the line between essential and nonessential gene therapy?
- Should people be allowed to use gene editing to enhance basic human traits such as eye colour, intelligence, or athletic abilities?
There is no objective answer to this.
If we look at the Islamic point of view Islam hints at genetic modification in Quran.
“And assuredly I will lead them astray and assuredly I will arouse in them vain desires and assuredly I will incite them and they will cut the ears of cattle and assuredly I will incite them and they will alter Allah’s creation and whosoever takes Satan for a friend instead of Allah he certainly suffers a manifest loss.” (Holy Quran 4:120) ⁷
This verse does not completely prohibit gene editing. It is permissible when it is used to produce medicines or alleviate suffering but using it to tamper human individuality or to interfere in the Divine scheme of things presses the red light.
The fourth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Mirza Tahir Ahmed (may Allah’s mercy be upon him) expounds upon this topic by writing,
“What ultimate effects the new synthetic strains or altered species will have on the ecology in the future, cannot be assessed until the behaviour of the altered strains is closely and minutely monitored for a few successive generations. The danger of the disaster which they may spell is, however, real and substantial. If not strictly monitored, injudicious experimentation with genetic engineering could let loose some unpredictable form of life which may defy human control… We do hope and pray that mankind will be spared by the torment of hopeless helplessly watching the day when it will be mastered by the synthetics slaves of its own creation.” ⁸