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What about the ethics of taking over, parasitically, the genetics of another being? If DNA and genetics are anything they are surely proof of each organism and species autonomy and sovereignty in life. It is their road map through the Aeons to who and what they are. What makes what big money is doing to these beings any better than say a wart? Which duplicates ones RNA to live parasitically upon its host.

Submitted by: Lonemountainhomestead


Expert response from Wayne Parrott

Professor, Crop Breeding and Genetics, University of Georgia

Friday, 05/06/2015 14:07

Thank you for your question, which alludes to species integrity and its implications. There is no doubt that until very recently, each species was viewed as genetically unique, or exhibiting "species autonomy or sovereignty in life," as you describe it. However, today's extensive genome sequencing has shown this not to be the case, and gene transfer between species is far more common and extensive than previously thought. For example, all studied crop genomes have DNA from pararetroviruses and florendoviruses in them, so adding genes to plants is really not anything too new or different from what happens in nature. Even then, engineered genes are added to only one or a few varieties of a species, not to the whole species itself, so the species autonomy remains.

Whether a gene introduced by a scientist is or is not a parasite is an interesting question. As defined by Merriam-Webster, a parasite can be "something that resembles a biological parasite in dependence on something else for existence or support without making a useful or adequate return." In this case, the genes scientists introduce clearly do not fit the definition—they are added to the plant precisely because they make useful returns by making the plant suffer less from pests or more desirable for farmers to grow. In other words, they contribute to the survival of the fittest.

In addition, plants have lots of naturally occurring DNA that has been frequently called parasitic or junk DNA. It turns out that genes make up only a small percentage of the DNA in a plant. The bulk of the DNA has no known function, which is why it gets called junk DNA or even parasitic DNA—just Google the term “parasite DNA.” Thus, even if the DNA added in a lab were to become a parasite on the plant, it would simply be joining its fellow comrades already there, and it would be so outnumbered as not to make a difference.

The lesson here is that nature and genetics are far more diverse and dynamic than they have historically been given credit for. And at the end of the day, the best we can hope to do in the lab is to replicate on a small scale what nature does on a large scale.