What is a problem that is consistently encountered within the biotechnology field and what is the solution that can resolve that problem?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is a rich public debate about how the potential risks associated with biotechnology methods and bioindustry products should be assessed and about whether and how bioethics should influence public policy. ... Expert opinion supports ... honestly held but often conflicting beliefs and values about nature, animals, and the community good .... The result is that biotechnology issues are often highly contentious and debated on both scientific and ethical grounds. (Gus A. Koehler, Ph.D., "Ethical Issues and Risk Assessment in Biotechnology")

[Public policy: the formation of governmental policy, regulation and standards pertaining to an issue or a social or cultural problem; a system of laws, regulatory measures, courses of action, and funding priorities concerning a given topic. (Kilpatrick, Ph.D.)]

One problem, in the category of bioethics, continually encountered in biotechnology is that of the correctness of bioengineering organisms to develop genetically engineered biologically active substances. The resulting biological entities are called transgenic animals. "[T]he National Council of Churches, the Foundation on Economic Trends, and the Center for the Respect of Life and the Environment, called for a moratorium on transgenic animal research," (Koehler). Current biotechnological efforts have development transgenic swine that were plagued by deformities of body and skull, sterility, renal disease, swollen limbs, crossed eyes and arthritis (Comstock qtd on Koehler). Ethical and religious objections are numerous and were voiced in a 1989 document titled "Consultation on Respect for Life and the Environment."

Another problem that is continually encountered in biotechnology is that of "introducing genetically-engineered species into the environment for testing or commercial purposes" (Koehler). Corn, soy beans and tomato are some genetically engineered, or transgenic, crops that have gotten a lot of public attention over recent years, with countries like Nigeria rejecting U.N. aid packages of genetically modified (GMO) corn during famine for the sake of protecting the country's people from the unknown short- and long-term effects of GMO foods. Of the many questions that transgenic crops raise that are being hotly debated on both sides of the issue, one compelling concern is the unknown effect of transgenic crops on global crop diversity: "Commercialization of transgenic crops could threaten global crop diversity, particularly if the industry becomes more vertically integrated" (Koehler).

A new problem is the merging of nanotechnology (an unresearched and unregulated technology field: short- and long-term effects on humans and the environment are unknown) with biotechnology to form two branches of bio-nanotechnology: bionanotechnology and nanobiotechnology, the first dealing with operations (i.e., any procedure or study or manipulation) on biological systems by using nanotechnology, e.g., cellular bionano engineering, and the second dealing with developing nanotechnological tools for performing operations on biological systems, e.g., nanoparticles developed as medication delivery systems. The largest ethical question looming relevant to the merger of biotechnology and nanotechnology centers around the multiple unknowns in each branch of research and development: What do these do to humans, animals, the global environment, and the nature of humanity itself? 

When asking for solutions to continually encountered problems in biotechnology, and the newly emerging nano-biotechnology, it must be understood that, since the entirety of the scientific, ethics, religious and political communities are at the moment engaged in hot debates about the problems that are continually encountered, there are as yet no solutions. Therefore there is no apparent answer to the question of "What are solutions?" If you must surmise what solutions will one day present themselves--a huge and presumptive undertaking--then you might start with the solutions that are generated as public policy. Public policy will have to be generated as was done in 1994 by President Bill Clinton's President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research that defined the ethical, legal and medical parameters for death, forgoing life-support, and recombinant DNA research [recombinant DNA: DNA molecules formed by laboratory methods of genetic recombination, such as molecular cloning (Wikipedia)]. One specific example of a public policy solution would be federally mandated nanotechnology [microfibers are made through unregulated nanotechnology] research for the purpose of defining the threat to human and animal life and to the global environment to establish the framework of public policy regulation of the nanotechnology industry, which would include bio-nanotechnology. 


G. Comstock, "Should We Genetically Engineer Hogs?," quoted in J. Dekker and G. Comstock, "Ethical and Environmental Considerations in the Release of Herbicide Resistant Crops," Agriculture and Human Values, Summer 1992, p. 4.

Gus A. Koehler, Ph.D. "Ethical Issues and Risk Assessment in Biotechnology." Bioindustry: A Description of California's Bioindustry and Summary of the Public Issues Affecting Its Development

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