Deoxyribonucleic acid: such a hard term to spell, much more to understand. Despite the amazing lengths science has gone to unravel it, there is still so much to know. But what limited knowledge we do have about it, we have started to take advantage for ourselves. From producing pest-resistant and higher-yielding crops, to solving crimes, the code of nature just shows boundless potential. But how sure are we that manipulating the most basic components of living organisms can do us good? The science and technology of DNA is the epitome of the “double-edgedness” of science – there is no telling whether what we do not fully know, or what we confidently know about can bring us hell or heaven.
I know and believe this much: DNA technology is powerful. It is the future. Genetic engineering, biotechnology, cloning, and mutation make me cringe with a mix of excitement and worry about what the future will bring decades after I leave this worldly existence. The science fiction movies I’ve seen gave away some of it. Diseases and life-span determined right upon birth; clones raised as medical insurance to be harvested at will; babies whose physical traits and abilities predetermined by parents; loved ones or other significant people in society living several lifetimes. It’s a picture of a human-centric world where our existence and the living creatures around us are at the mercy of DNA science.
The title of this course, “DNA: A Brave New World” is aptly named to describe its power and the attitude that we ought to give it. Tinkering with the code of nature requires courage, caution and a strong sense of morality as rightfully accorded to any powerful entity. It requires brave, intelligent souls to explore and manipulate the immense depth and complexity of DNA, like entering a large dark cave that has as much richness as there is danger. Once inside, every next step requires the most thoughtful caution so that whatever is done along the way does not result to unfavorable results. And in nature, when things go awry, they are usually exponential and very hard, if not impossible, to control. And when reputable knowledge from this tinkering is finally achieved, we can only rely on our social conscience and inherent human morals to make sure the knowledge is applied for the greater good.
I think this should be the ultimate goal of this course: to not be ignorant about this unstoppable force that will undoubtedly and significantly shape our future; but more importantly, to appreciate that DNA technology is not the end, but only the means to make this world a better place not just for us, but for the rest of the biosphere that calls this world home. This can only be done by appreciating the technical aspects of DNA, not so much on a level that is required to become competent biological engineers, but just enough to appreciate how technical and sensitive it is. The purpose is to be conversant in critical issues related to DNA technologies because we will definitely need it when time comes for us, the public, to make decisions about policies that relate to this technology. This is a question of when, not if.
Right now, for example, our patronage to food products developed using genetic engineering is shaped by our ignorance or knowledge of the risks and benefits of this technology. New strains of crops may be more pest resistant and profitable, but there may be unanticipated effects to the other species of plants and animals that it comes in contact with.
It is just not civil for our modern society to just think of the economies of the present, but rather, to consider the repercussions to other aspects of the environment that can later come back to haunt us and our future generations. Our constantly changing needs evolve in step with advancing science, culminating in newer technology that challenges our existing beliefs and knowledge. This is always the point of debacle in any revolutionary science, but with DNA technology, the risks are greatly amplified. There are the moral issues to contend with, such as those that manipulate human life as in cloning, and then there are the large gray areas about the unknown risks, such as those that manipulate genetic code of plant and animal species for our material benefit.
But one might argue that there is no point of going back or getting stagnant in what we currently know. Perhaps the right attitude of calculated steps and cautious courage are the most important virtues that we can get from this course if we are to embrace and live in a scientific world that gets newer every passing day.