Even before the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the term biotechnology applied to many areas of human livelihood dealing with crops, livestock, and other domesticated animals. Thanks to continual scientific advancement, especially in the field of genomics, biotechnology has expanded considerably to include fields such as pharmaceuticals, food, combating epidemic diseases and biofuel production. Despite the potential benefits of biotechnology applications, there may be some “potential dangers.” Biotechnology research can be used to make weapons to harm humans and the environment. Potential damage to human health can come from three main risks: genetically modified (GM) foods, the pharmaceutical industry and advanced therapies such as gene therapy.
Cutting off a piece of DNA from a creature and then pasting it into another creature has proven successful in many plants, bacteria, and other organisms. Many traits have been developed for farmers, such as fruit ripeness and resistance to pests and viruses. It can add other important traits to plants, such as salinity- and drought-resistance, in order to thrive in unfavorable climates. Although many studies point to the safety of GM food, the main objection is that researchers are unable to identify changes that GM foods may make to human health and physiology. The concerns associated with GM foods include toxicity, allergies and genetic risks. This may be due to genes added to the modified organisms and their modified expression, or to genes affecting multiple characteristics (pleiotropy) that may disrupt the function of natural genes.
Starlink maize is a common example of GM food side effects caused by an inserted gene. This crop gained the advantage of being glufosinate resistant. It was subsequently banned because it was classified as an allergen due to its ability to interact with the human immune system. Several years later, traces of Starlink DNA remain scattered in food supplies and tobacco, both within and outside the United States. The multiple and indirect effects of modified foods are more complex and difficult to follow. They may affect the metabolism pathway in different ways that are not easily detected, most notably when the problem is not in their initial effect but in secondary effects or enzymatic defects appearing whose sources are difficult to pinpoint.
Take, for example, the recent success of a scientific team in manipulating important characteristics of several plants in Saudi Arabia. They developed technologies to grow saltwater-tolerant crops in greenhouses cooled using saltwater. This enabled certain crops, including tomatoes, to thrive in sub-optimal soil conditions (high salinity) and in high temperatures. A company that spun off from this research is aiming to produce tons of crops by 2020.
Similar concerns apply to many biotechnological fields in which researchers make alterations in living organisms through cloning, genetic engineering (e.g., CRISPR), the transmission of genes from harmful viruses or bacteria, or stem cell technology and its applications in medicine, all of which raise critical questions.
Are these modifications safe for humans? Can we accurately determine the consequences of these changes? Is this research being conducted with ethical approval? These techniques may fall into the hands of immoral traders. Concerns also include the safety of the planet’s ecosystem in which we live and must hand down to the generations that follow us. The consequences of our scientific actions may not be realized for two or three generations. Are we risking the health and well-being of our grandchildren?
• Dr. Faisal Alhorairi works as a principal investigator at the King Fahd Center for Medical Research in the Stem Cell Unit. He is also vice-dean for the Deanship of Student Affairs ands vice president of MENA region for Mirzyme Therapeutics.