Human Transgenesis - Definitions  Technical Possibilities and Moral Challenges
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Human Transgenesis - Definitions Technical Possibilities and Moral Challenges

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Human Transgenesis: Definitions, Technical Possibilities
and Moral Challenges

Flávio Guimarães da Fonseca &
Daniel Mendes Ribeiro & Nara Pereira Carvalho &
Mariana Alves Lara & Antonio Cota Marçal &
Brunello Stancioli

Received: 28 December 2011 /Accepted: 12 April 2012
# Springer-Verlag 2012

Abstract In this article, we examine the ethical implications of human transgenesis by
considering the phenomenon in its larger evolutionary context. After clarifying the
concept of transgenesis, we show that rather than unprecedented or unnatural, trans-
genesis is a common aspect of the evolutionary process that has likely affected all extant
living animals, humans included. Additionally, we demonstrate that human transgenesis
is technically feasible and that the moral barriers to it are mostly based on irrational fears
premised on distorted and unrealistic views of “human nature”. Furthermore, we suggest
that transgenically modifying persons might be morally preferable to relying blindly on
the “natural lottery”, and that it is possible to do so in an ethical and responsible manner.

Keywords Transgenesis . Human enhancement . Human nature . Good life
Ethics and technology

1 Introduction

Humanity is on the verge of a global revolution in health care. With advances in
molecular and genetic approaches toward understanding and treating disease, a
plethora of new possibilities for improving human well-being is emerging. Some of
these possibilities regard the so-called human enhancements—technological

Philos. Technol.
DOI 10.1007/s13347-012-0074-7

F. G. da Fonseca
Departamento de Microbiologia, ICB, UFMG, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte,
Minas Gerais, Brazil

D. M. Ribeiro :N. P. Carvalho :M. A. Lara : B. Stancioli (*)
Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: brunellostancioli@gmail.com

A. C. Marçal
Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais – PUC/MG, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil

interventions into human biology that enhance, change or create functional capabil-
ities potentially beyond the “normal” human range (cf. Savulescu et al. 2011).

Whereas the idea of human enhancement is in itself controversial, trying to
perform enhancements by means of transgenic interventions may border on taboo.1

Interfering with genes suggests interfering with the course of evolution, blurring the
boundaries between species and permanently tainting human nature. Thus, if most
forms of human enhancement raise concerns about the boundaries of what should be
regarded as human, transgenesis will only reinforce these concerns.

Transgenesis is not well understood by most people. To critically assess the moral
implications of transgenic interventions on the human genome, it is necessary to
clarify the concept of transgenesis and appraise the technical possibilities and many
risks that are involved in its effective use. The main reason for attempting trans-
genesis is to enable a greater number of people—and especially the disadvantaged by
a poor genetic makeup—to live healthier and happier lives. A person's capacity to
achieve self-realisation depends in part on their power to act upon reality, and
transgenesis could be a powerful tool for doing so.

2 The Concept of Transgenesis

A central development in medicine and biology over the last 30 years relates to the
concept of transgenesis and its ultimate product: the genetically modified organism
(GMO). Defining transgenesis has been sometimes complicated by the popular
misuse of different terms that are not synonyms but that overlap. For example,
transgenesis and genetic engineering have been frequently employed synonymously
to refer to a collection of techniques that are used to genetically modify an organism.
Nevertheless, as discussed by Shrader-Frechette (2005) and Hug (2008), genetic
engineering may be defined either broadly or narrowly. In the broad sense, genetic
engineering includes the collection of uncontroversial techniques by which organisms
can be selectively improved through the successive crossing of parental beings that
contain desirable genetic and phenotypic traits; this approach is popularly known as
selective breeding. In the narrow sense, however, genetic engineering refers to the
horizontal transfer of DNA fragments or genes from one organism to another, thereby
altering the genetic makeup of the second organism. Whereas the first definition does
not fit the concept of transgenesis, the latter definition does. The term horizontal gene
transfer (HGT), or lateral gene transfer, has also been used as a synonym of trans-
genesis. As defined by Keeling and Palmer (2008), HGT refers to the movement of
genetic information from one organism to another independently of phylogenetic
relatedness. In contrast to vertical gene transfer, in which genetic characteristics are
transferred to the next generation through processes of viable reproduction, HGT is
mating-independent and may affect organisms in a single generation. In this sense,
the concepts of HGT and transgenesis overlap almost completely. Nonetheless, we
propose a conceptual differentiation between the two terms, using “transgenesis” in

1 Science fiction classics such as “The Fly”, “The Island of Dr. Moureau” and “Frankenstein” are probably
the greatest source of transgenesis-related fear (cf. Brem and Anijar 2003; Karpowicz 2003). It is very
unlikely that transgenesis will cause severe morphological changes (cf. Powell and Buchanan 2011: 64).

F.G. da Fonseca et al.

the context of the biotechnological application of HGT with the purpose of the
intentional and focused genetic alteration of a given organism.

The biotechnological application of HGT to generate GMOs has met considerable
resistance from the general public. This resistance has been especially acute when
GMOs are food-related, which has led to continuous and sometimes passionate
debates. Many types of plants and some livestock are currently being genetically
modified for several reasons. As enumerated by Uzogara (2000), these include better
nutritive content, resistance to adverse factors such as disease, pests and bad weather,
faster growth and longer shelf life. Advocates of this technology argue that the
potential for increased productivity from GMO crops may actually help to solve
challenges of world agriculture and provide food for an ever-growing human popu-
lation. Moreover, the improvement and simplification of transgenic techniques have led to
possibilities in which plants can be tailored to provide and deliver not only nutrition, but also
therapeutic components and molecules that are focused on health improvement. Opponents
of transgenic foods, however, express fear that the growing presence of GMOsmay result in
alterations to the nutritional quality of food, potential toxicity, potential allergenicity and
carcinogenicity from the consumption of GMO foods, increased antibiotic-resistance dis-
persion, ecological disturbances and the unintended transfer of genes to wild plants.
Supporters of GMO production and consumption argue that opposition to transgenic foods
is politically driven and is not based on sound scientific facts.

Aside from a few controversial studies, there are no definitive scientific indications to
deem GMO foods as harmful either to humans or to the environment (Uzogara 2000; Wu
2004; EFSA 2008; Raven 2010). In analysing public resistance to genetically mod-
ified foods, Wu concluded that public wariness may result from the fact that con-
sumers rarely perceive the benefits that GMO crops could deliver, instead focusing
disproportionately on the potential risks associated with such technologies. Although
many of the potential risks that are associated with growing and/or consuming
GMO foods have been scientifically and independently disproven, the general
public remains unaware that the popular media frequently emphasises potential risk
rather than the repudiation of alleged risk (Pinstrup-Andersen and Schioler 2000).

Ironically,