11. Applications of Biotechnology


11.5. Biotechnology Ethics


Scientific advances frequently present society with ethical questions that must be resolved. For example, when first introduced, immunization and in vitro fertilization were highly controversial procedures. How will new technology be used safely? Who will benefit? Should the technology be used to make a profit? Biotechnology is no different.

Many feel that biotechnology is dangerous. There are concerns about contaminating the environment with organisms that are modified genetically in the lab. What would be the impact of such contamination? Biotechnology also allows scientists to examine molecularly the genetic characteristics of an individual. How will this ability to characterize individuals be used? How will it be misused? Others feel that biotechnology is akin to playing God.


What Are the Consequences?

One way to explore the ethics of biotechnology is to weigh its pros against its cons. This method of thinking considers all the consequences and implications of biotechnology. Which outweighs the other? The benefits of nearly everything discussed in this chapter include a greater potential for better medical treatment, cures for disease, and a better understanding of the world around us. What price must we pay for these advances?

• The development of these technologies may mean that our personal genetic information becomes public record. How might this information be misused? Insurance companies might deny coverage or charge exorbitant premiums for individuals with genetic diseases.

• Cloning technology allows the creation of genetically modified foods that increase production and are more nutritious. Is this ethical if the genetically modified organism suffers because of disorders and pain caused by the change? Are you willing to risk the potential problems of a genetically modified organism becoming part of the ecosystem? How might the introduction of genetically modified species alter ecosystems and their delicate balance?


Is Biotechnology Inherently Wrong?

Another way to explore the ethics of biotechnology is to ask if it violates principles that are valued by society. What aspects of biotechnology threaten the principles of the Bill of Rights? Basic human rights? Religious beliefs? Quality of life issues? Animal rights issues? Which of these sets of principles should be used to help us decide if biotechnology is ethical?

• Is it inherently wrong to produce genetically modified foods? Should companies be allowed to grow genetically modified crops? Should the foods be labeled as genetically modified when sold? How does this impact you as a consumer or simply as a person?

• Is it inherently wrong to manipulate genes? Are humans wise enough to use biotechnology safely? Is this something that only God should control? Would you have your child genetically altered as a fetus to prevent a genetic disease? Would you have your child genetically altered as a fetus to enhance desirable characteristics, such as intelligence, or even to control gender? Do you feel that one situation is morally justified but the other is not?

• Is it inherently wrong to harvest embryonic stem cells? Stem cells may provide new avenues of treatment for many disorders. Although there are several sources of stem cells, the cells of most interest are embryonic stem cells. Harvesting these cells destroys the embryo. Even if the embryo is not yet aware of its environment and does not sense pain, is it ethical to use human embryos to advance the treatment of disease?

• Are we morally obligated to search for cures and treatments? Can we stop research if people still need treatment and cures?

Clearly, these are issues that our society will debate for some time. Many of these issues have been debated for decades and bring forward very strong feelings and very different world views. As you continue to hear more about biotechnology in your day-today life, consider how that form of biotechnology may affect you.



15. Match each of the following questions to the appropriate statements.

Ethical Principle


What are the consequences?

The benefits of biotechnology more than compensate for its problems.

Is biotechnology inherently wrong?

Regardless of the benefits of biotechnology, we should not tamper with organisms in this way.

Is the manipulation of an organism’s genes playing God?

Religion and science do not conflict with one another.

16. List three of the benefits of biotechnology in your life today.



Advances in biotechnology are possible because organisms use a common genetic language to make proteins. New techniques, such as DNA fingerprinting and DNA sequencing, allow scientists to compare DNA directly. These techniques involve multiple steps, including the polymerase chain reaction, the use of restriction enzymes, and electrophoresis. One large-scale analysis was the Human Genome Project. Scientists are hopeful that the information gained from the Human Genome Project will allow the better diagnosis and treatment of many medical conditions. The genomes of many other organisms have also been characterized, resulting in the new fields of biology called genomics, transcriptomics, and proteomics. The commonality of the genetic code allows DNA from one organism to be used by a different species. The techniques used to clone a gene and to clone an entire organism differ. Cloning a gene involves a number of techniques, including screening a DNA library.

Cloning an organism involves somatic cell nuclear transfer. Stem cells have the potential to become multiple cell types. Many feel that the controlled growth of stem cells can be a medical treatment for many incurable medical conditions. The social concern surrounding biotechnology has created an ethical debate, which asks two fundamental questions:

• Do the benefits of biotechnology outweigh the problems?

• Are some aspects of biotechnology inherently wrong?


Basic Review

1. Information in DNA can code for the same protein in any organism. (T/F)

2. DNA fingerprinting

a. directly examines nucleotide sequence.

b. examines segments of DNA, which vary in length between individuals.

c. transfers DNA from one person to another.

d. uses stem cells.

3. Restriction fragments

a. are used in a technique that sequences DNA.

b. create many copies of DNA from a small amount.

c. are pieces of DNA cut by enzymes at specific sites.

d. are pieces of protein cut by enzymes at specific sites.

4. A technique that separates DNA fragments of different lengths is

a. electrophoresis.

b. DNA sequencing.

c. polymerase chain reaction.

d. DNA fingerprinting.

5. The Human Genome Project

a. was an international effort.

b. determined the sequence of a healthy human genome.

c. allows comparisons of the human genome with that of other organisms.

d. All of the above are correct.

6. The term cloning can be applied to which of the following situations?

a. creating an exact copy of a fragment of DNA

b. creating a second organism that is genetically identical to the first

c. using a restriction enzyme

d. Both a and b are correct.

7. Which of the following terms best describes an organism that possesses a cloned fragment of DNA from another species?

a. uncloned

b. genetically modified (GM)

c. differentiated

d. genomic

8. Stem cell research is controversial because

a. of the source of stem cells.

b. stem cells may cure certain diseases.

c. stem cells are not yet differentiated.

d. stem cells are not yet determined.

9. DNA libraries are

a. stored in computers, so that they can be easily searched.

b. are an index of various organisms.

c. collections of DNA fragments that represent the genome of an organism.

d. a person’s unique electrophoresis banding pattern.

10. Restriction enzymes

a. cut DNA randomly.

b. cut DNA at specific sequences.

c. can create sticky ends.

d. Both b and c are correct.

11. _____ is the process a cell goes through to select which genes it will express.

12. This procedure removes a nucleus from a cell of the organism that will be cloned.

a. somatic cell nuclear transfer

b. transposition

c. cloning

d. electrophoresis

13. Scientists have used some types of _____ to transfer genes from one cell type to another.

14. _____ DNA is DNA that has been constructured by inserting new pieces of DNA into it from another organism.

15. This field of study examines the proteins that are predicted from the DNA sequence.

a. genomics

b. proteomics

c. transcriptomics

d. restriction enzyme technology



1. T 2. b 3. c 4. a 5. d 6. d 7. b 8. a 9. c 10. d 11. Determination 12. a 13. viruses or plasmids 14. Recombinant 15. B


Thinking Critically

Crime Scene Work with DNA

An 18-year-old college student reported that she had been raped by someone she identified as a “large, tanned white man.” A student in her biology class fitting that description was said by eyewitnesses to have been, without a doubt, in the area at approximately the time of the crime. The suspect was apprehended and, on investigation, was found to look very much like someone who lived in the area and who had a previous record of criminal sexual assaults.

Samples of semen from the woman’s vagina were taken during a physical exam after the rape. Cells were also taken from the suspect.

He was brought to trial but was found to be innocent of the crime based on evidence from the criminal investigations laboratory. His alibi—that he had been working alone on a research project in the biology lab—held up. Without PCR genetic fingerprinting, the suspect would surely have been wrongly convicted, based solely on circumstantial evidence provided by the victim and the eyewitnesses.

Place yourself in the position of the expert witness from the criminal laboratory who performed the PCR genetic fingerprinting tests on the two specimens. The prosecuting attorney has just asked you to explain to the jury what led you to the conclusion that the suspect could not have been responsible for this crime. Remember, you must explain this to a jury of 12 men and women who, in all likelihood, have little or no background in the biological sciences.