Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

In the last article in the Standard Bearer on this subject, we discussed what genetic engineering was all about. In this article we want to be a bit more specific and describe some of the things that are already being done through genetic engineering and some of the things which scientists contemplate doing in the future.

Many benefits have already been reaped from genetic engineering in the production of food, both fruits and vegetables and meat from animals, chickens, turkeys and fish. Genetic engineering in fruits and vegetables has produced larger crops of food, more nutritious foods, different kinds of foods and more appealing foods. It has been a factor in what has sometimes been called the “green revolution,” by which scientists hope to eradicate starvation Tram the globe. Applied to various meat producing creatures, genetic engineering has made it possible to grow animals, fish and poultry more rapidly, to produce better flavored and more nutritious meat products, and has therefore made meat more widely available to the consumer. But these are aspects of the matter which are not of a great deal of concern to us.

It is when genetic engineering is used on human beings that things get very sticky.

But here too, one must be aware of the fact that genetic engineering is used for different purposes. In order to understand this, one must make at this point a crucial distinction. Our readers will recall that in the last article we mentioned the fact that the genetic code-which determine all the characteristics of a living creature and which is contained in the DNA, is found in every single cell of the body. Consider that the human body has around 100 trillion cells, and each one possesses this identical genetic code lodged in the DNA.

If we remember this, then it is also clear that scientists can take, e.g., a grown man, take one cell from his body, do something to the genetic code of that one cell so that the instructions which it gives are different; but such changes will effect only that one cell and the function it performs in the body as a whole. They can, so to speak, clip off a specific part of the DNA chain and replace this clipped off segment with a different gene. Quite obviously, this will alter the code and the commands which the genes give to the cells will be changed. These changed commands will alter the things the cell does—for good or for bad.

Up to this point, scientists face two major problems. One problem is that they do not know what every gene in this DNA does. In fact, they know only a small fraction of the DNA structure and what function each gene plays in a cell. They have only begun to “map out” the DNA and its genetic code. Before they can do all the things they want to do, they will have to know precisely what every gene does. There are, so scientists figure, about 5,000,000 genes in all, of which at least 100,000 define the human form. And all these are found in every single cell in the human body.

The other problem is that the human body contains about 100 trillion cells. To alter every single cell would obviously be an impossible task. The result is that any changes brought about by genetic engineering in an individual affect that individual only; they have no effects upon that individual’s children. Now this is not so bad, of course, as long as one wants to make changes only in one individual. In fact, it is good that these changes die when the individual dies. But this is not the whole story. Especially in connection with hereditary diseases such as Downs Syndrome, e.g., scientists would like to get rid of the disease, not only in one individual, but in all the progeny of that individual. You see, scientists have concluded (rightly or wrongly we cannot say) that Downs Syndrome is the result of a defective gene somewhere in the DNA. Now it would be impossible to cure the Downs Syndrome in a child already born because every single cell of the 100 trillion would have to be changed—or at least every single cell whose function contributes to this disease. And even if this were possible, that would mean that all the changes brought about would only be good for that individual. Any progeny which he or she might have would still come into the world with the defective gene.

Thus the cure of hereditary diseases seems to be an impossible goal.

But wait a moment. Scientists have hit upon another technique which holds out hope even for this. Everyone knows that every human being develops in the womb of its mother from one single cell which cell is formed at the moment of conception when the sperm of the father unites with the ovum of the mother and when the DNA of both are fused into one chain and one genetic code. (Again, one can only. stand in awe at the handiwork of God!) But you see, scientists, knowing this, have reasoned that if they can get their hands on that one cell before it begins to divine, and alter the genetic structure of that one cell so as to get rid of the defective gene, and to replace it with a good one, not only will they free the child from that genetic defect, but that disease brought about by such a genetic defect will no longer be present in that child or in any children which that child may subsequently produce.

But one realizes immediately that it is not so easy to get a hold of that one cell formed at the moment of conception. And this is why in vitro fertilization (which we discussed in an earlier article) is being considered not only for infertile couples, but also for couples who carry defective genes which may result in hereditary diseases. With in vitro fertilization, one has that first cell in his laboratory and can do with it what he wants.

Now the fact of the matter is that some hereditary diseases involve many different cells in many different organs, and some hereditary diseases involve only cells within one organ. If the latter is the case, an individual can be cured of a hereditary disease with relative ease—although again, he will not be able to pass on his cure of that disease to his offspring. It is in this latter area that work has already been done. Such diseases as ADA deficiency (which lessens or destroys the body’s ability to fight disease through affecting the immune system—resulting in so-called “bubble children”), Tay-Sachs disease, diabetes (which involves only the insulin-producing organ) and others can conceivably be cured in an individual through genetic engineering. And if the defective genes can be made whole at the moment of conception, the cure will be passed on to all one’s posterity. One would think that this is a beneficial aspect of genetic engineering and that it belongs to the general area of disease prevention and control. Especially parents who have gone through the agony of seeing children with these dread diseases could long for the day when the techniques to eradicate them are perfected.

However, there are complications—not so much with respect to these diseases—but in other related areas. A great deal has been done, e.g., in this field in the treatment of dwarfism. It seems that already the techniques have been perfected which will enable people with dwarf-like characteristics to grow to natural sizes and proportions. While this would fall under disease control and cure, many people, aware of this, have begun bombarding doctors with requests to have this treatment performed on their sons who are below average height. Whether they do not like to have their boys called “twirps” or whether they envision a career for their boys in professional basketball, they would like to have their boys grow taller than the genes those boys possess make possible.

And it is in this area that genetic engineering gets complicated and troublesome. This technique, which can make short boys taller, can also be used to enhance strength, alter intelligence, prevent aging (so it is claimed), alter the size of noses and ears, change the color of hair and eyes, and bring changes in all sorts of other characteristics which are part of the human form. In fact, if one can get one’s hands on the first cell from which a human being develops or manipulate the fusion of sperm and egg, one can even determine the sex. This latter is becoming increasingly a matter of interest, for parents are often quite fixed in their own minds on whether they want a boy or a girl. And, in fact, some scientists speak of building new people “from the ground up” with a complete set of superior genes.

And, of course, finally, the hope is that through genetic engineering the quality of the whole human race can be improved. Scientists are quite certain that, given enough time, they will be able to change at will this genetic structure of man so that all disease can be eradicated, so that all aging processes can be stopped, so that all people will be healthy, strong, intelligent, beautiful, and attractive with characteristics appealing to all. Genetic engineering holds out the hope of eradicating the world’s ills and creating utopia in the world.