Fishes come in all shapes and colours and from time immemorial, they have been watched, caught and kept. While some remember their favourite seafood dish when they think of fish, the Chinese are known to keep fish such as Koi and Arowana to attract good luck to their homes and businesses. 

We maintain an aquarium at home which entertains my husband and daughter. My daughter fights for the rights of these creatures vociferously and insists they need bigger aquariums, more light, more plants etc. The other day when her father brought home a few new brightly coloured fishes, she commented, “Those fish look like something a toddler drew and coloured with fluorescent highlighters and threw into the tank, that came to life”. She somehow felt the Creator’s design sense with His penchant for fiery sunsets and deep blue seas lined with white sandy beaches and trees hued a rich green, did not line up with these distasteful neons.

So, we went to the internet to do a quick check and guess what we found? These fish were Glo-Fish are trademarked fish that were originally genetically engineered by scientists with the intention to create fish that could change colours based on pollution levels in the water. Although not originally developed for the ornamental fish trade, it is one of the first genetically modified animals to become publicly available.

Genetic engineering (also called genetic modification) is a process that uses laboratory-based technologies to alter the DNA makeup of an organism. This may involve deleting a region of DNA or adding a new segment of DNA or adding a gene from one species to an organism from a different species to produce a desired trait. In research and industry, genetic engineering has been applied to the production of cancer therapies and genetically modified plants and livestock. 

In 1999, Dr Zhiyuan Gong [1] and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore (NUS) encoded the gene of the zebrafish originally native to India and Bangladesh with a green fluorescent protein (GFP), extracted from jellyfish, that naturally emitted a bright green fluorescence. They integrated it into the zebrafish’s genome. This caused the fish to be brightly fluorescent under both natural white light and ultraviolet light. The ultimate goal of this research team was to develop fish that could selectively fluoresce in the presence of environmental toxins. 

 Businessmen Alan Blake and Richard Crockett from Yorktown Technologies, L.P., a company in Austin, Texas, signed a deal with the scientists in NUS that gave Yorktown Technologies worldwide rights to market the fluorescent zebrafish, under the brand “GloFish”. Many colours of Glofish, trademarked as “Starfire Red”, “Sunburst Orange”, “Moonrise Pink”, “Cosmic Blue”, “Electric Green” and “Galactic Purple” are available.

It came as a shock that the theory of genetic engineering is not only practically viable, but has so subtly become part of our day-to-day living. How long will it be before genetically engineered children with eye colour, hair colour and skin colour based on the preference of the parents be publicly available? And if colour change is possible, what more can be genetically engineered? Is genetic engineering ethical or should we throw our Glofish out?

My daughter agrees that the advancement of science is indeed a boon, if used responsibly. She hopes that her generation and the generations ahead will act wisely and with great responsibility to keep the balance. So for her part, she decided she wants to keep the poor Glofish who were after all innocent pawns in the big game, but she just won’t buy any more of them. To learn more about genetic engineering, I asked ChatGPT the following questions, read on to hear the AI tool’s POV.

Explain genetic engineering in simple terms.

Genetic engineering is the process of changing the DNA code of an organism. This is done in a laboratory by adding, removing, or changing certain genes to produce specific characteristics or traits.

Think of DNA as a set of instructions for how an organism should grow and function. Genetic engineering allows scientists to change these instructions to create new traits or fix problems in the DNA code. This technology can be used in agriculture to create crops that are resistant to pests or disease, or in medicine to cure genetic disorders.

What are the pros and cons of genetic engineering?

Pros of genetic engineering:

  1. Improved crop yields: Genetic engineering can produce crops with improved yield and resistance to pests, diseases, and environmental conditions.
  2. Better medical treatments: Genetic engineering can lead to the development of new medical treatments for inherited diseases, cancer, and other medical conditions.
  3. Enhanced food quality: Genetic engineering can improve the nutritional content and taste of food.
  4. Increased sustainability: Genetic engineering can help produce crops that require fewer pesticides and fertilizers, reducing environmental damage.

Cons of genetic engineering:

  1. Ethical concerns: Genetic engineering raises ethical concerns, such as the possibility of creating “designer babies” and the unequal distribution of genetic benefits.
  2. Health risks: There are concerns that genetically engineered organisms could have unintended consequences, such as the spread of new diseases and the creation of new allergens.
  3. Environmental impact: The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment could have negative effects on wildlife and ecosystems.
  4. Economic impact: The cost of genetic engineering technology may limit its accessibility to small farmers, leading to further economic inequality.

What is the future of genetic engineering?

The future of genetic engineering is likely to be shaped by advances in technology and a better understanding of genetics. Some of the potential future developments in genetic engineering include:

  1. Precision medicine: Genetic engineering could lead to the development of personalised medical treatments based on a person’s unique genetic makeup.
  2. New therapies for genetic disorders: Genetic engineering could lead to the development of new therapies for a range of genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia .
  3. Improved crop yields and sustainability: Genetic engineering could help produce crops that are more resistant to pests, disease, and environmental stress, leading to increased yields and sustainability.
  4. Synthetic biology: Genetic engineering could lead to the development of new organisms designed for specific purposes, such as the production of biofuels and bioplastics.

However, there are also potential risks associated with genetic engineering, including ethical concerns, environmental impact, and health risks, which will need to be carefully considered as the field develops.

What are the ethical issues related to genetic engineering?

The ethical issues related to genetic engineering include:

  1. Designer babies: Genetic engineering could lead to the development of so-called “designer babies,” where parents choose the traits of their children, such as intelligence or physical appearance.
  2. Equality and access: There is a concern that genetic engineering technologies could be used to create genetic inequality, where only certain individuals or groups have access to genetic benefits.
  3. Human enhancement: Genetic engineering could be used to enhance human capabilities, such as physical strength or intelligence, leading to questions about what it means to be human and the morality of such enhancements.
  4. Genetic discrimination: There is a fear that individuals with genetic modifications could face discrimination in areas such as employment, insurance, and education.
  5. Long-term consequences: The long-term consequences of genetic engineering, such as the impact on future generations, are unclear and raise questions about the responsible use of the technology.
  6. Environmental impact: The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment could have unintended consequences, such as the spread of new diseases and the creation of new allergens.

These ethical concerns highlight the need for ongoing discussion and debate about the responsible use of genetic engineering technology and the ethical implications of its use.

Are there successful gene editing cases documented?

Yes, there have been several documented cases of successful gene editing. Gene editing, also known as genome editing, is a technique used to modify the DNA of an organism. The most widely used gene editing tool is CRISPR-Cas9, which allows researchers to precisely target and modify specific genes.

One well-known example is the use of CRISPR to cure genetic disorders in animals, such as mice with a form of muscular dystrophy and dogs with a genetic disease that causes blindness. In humans, gene editing has been used to treat blood disorders such as beta-thalassemia and sickle cell anemia, by using a patient’s own blood cells that have been edited to produce a functional version of the gene responsible for the disorder.

However, it is important to note that while there have been some promising results from gene editing research, it is still an experimental field and many challenges remain before it can be widely used for medical applications.

What are the instances of human gene editing?

Human gene editing refers to the intentional modification of a person’s DNA, with the goal of correcting genetic disorders or changing an individual’s physical characteristics. Here are a few examples of human gene editing:

  1. Sickle cell anemia: This is a genetic blood disorder that has been treated using CRISPR gene editing to replace the faulty gene with a functional one.
  2. Beta-thalassemia: This is another blood disorder that has been treated using CRISPR gene editing to produce a functional form of the gene that causes the condition.
  3. HIV/AIDS: Gene editing has been used to modify immune cells, making them resistant to HIV infection.
  4. Inherited genetic disorders: Gene editing has been used to correct genetic mutations that cause inherited disorders such as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.

It’s worth mentioning that human gene editing is still a developing field, and many of these therapies are still in the early stages of development and testing. The ethical, social, and scientific implications of gene editing are also being widely debated, and more research is needed to fully understand the potential risks and benefits of this technology.


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