The essential process by which the likeness of the parent is transmitted to the offspring is as mysterious to us, as a flash of lightning to a savage. William Bateson, the famous, British biologist coined the term ‘genetics’ in 1902. In the seven decades bet.ween 1900 and 1970, the savage has transformed himself into a savant. On June 2, 1970, Dr. Hargobind Khorana, a U.S. scientist of Indian origin, announced at a seminar of world scientists at the University of Wisconsin, U.S., that he had accomplished the first successful total synthesis of a gene– the basic hereditary unit of life. The scientific breakthrough of this noted molecular biologist, who won the 1968 Nobel Prize for deciphering the genetic code implies the production of a gene by artificial means, by combining simple organic chemicals in a test tube.
Genes are microscopic units present in the cells of all living organisms, and play an important part in determining heredity. They influence characteristic and traits. Physical feature such as the colour of an infant’s eyes are determined by genes. If, for instance, in the case of parent, the brown eye gene is dominant over the recessive blue eye gene, the off-spring will have brown eyes. The genes furnish the blue-print for the individual’s physical characteristics and development. Heredity is a complex matter, and in the secret of genes lies the key to understanding the nature of heredity. Genes control the biochemical reaction that occurs, within the embryo or adult organism, and this control results in changing or guiding the development of the organism’s characteristics.
Scientists have earlier discovered a method of taking small doses of genetic material out of living cells and making copies of natural genetic material in a test tube. But Dr. Khorana is the first to show that genes can be synthesized from atoms of simple chemical building blocks with no natural gene required as a model in the reaction mixture.
Dr. Khorana started with the four nucleotides that are basic building blocks of genes and which can be synthesized easily from atoms. He joined the nucleotides into a number of single-stranded segments with the nucleotides in proper sequence and later joined those fragments into a complete, double-stranded 77 nucleotide gene. The single-stranded fragments were designed by Dr. Khorana SO they would spontaneously line up in proper sequence for the double strands, exactly as happens in natural deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The gene is a molecule of D.N.A.
Since the splitting of the atom no other single scientific advance has revealed as many challenging possibilities for man as has this new technology of gene synthesis. Judged by any standard the accomplishment is revolutionary. Man-made genes are the first steps in unveiling the mystery of the physical nature of man. The conquest of the gene has removed the wall that separated the living from the non-living. A gene, capable of duplication and possessing the genetic message, can now be created from simple inorganic substances within the realm of chemical and physical laws. Supernatural forces are obviously not involved in the transmission and expression of hereditary information, the most fundamental property of all living things.
Dr. Khorana was hesitant to predict the impact of accomplishment but said it might eventually permit scientists to manipulate the biology of a living system. Genetic diseases such as diabetes and some mental illnesses might someday be cured by providing tissues cf the effected individuals with a supply of normal genes, he said. Other characteristics of individuals might also be altered in the same manner, he claimed. Finally, the nobel laureate affirmed: “In the long-distant future the knowledge might allow for genetic planning of individual-tailoring people of fit patterns, turning out athletes or intellectuals.”
Thus, it may be possible to build up a library of human genes, each one made to chosen specifications. Man will then acquire the capacity to replace defective genes of his cells with the correct ones made in the test tube. We shall surely apply this concept of ‘genetic engineering’ for curing genetic disorders, such as muscular dystrophy, hemophilia or diabetes. We may, for instance, synthesize the gene for insulin and introduce it into appropriate cells of the patients suffering from congenital diabetes. The newly introduced gene would presumably begin to synthesize insulin, making daily injections unnecessary. One of the simplest suggestions currently being explained is to utilize animal viruses to carry synthetic genes into the nuclei of mammalian cells.
Through genetic engineering, man will become capable of improving his own quality as no other living creature has been able to do so far. These possibilities have come to a step nearer. Eventually, we will surely come to the time when man will have the power to alter, specially and consciously, his very genes. This will be a new event in the universe. No longer need we wait for the chance mutation and the slow process of selection. Intelligence can be applied to evolution.
Like all great scientific discoveries, the synthesis of genes is also capable of misuse. Man’s ability to manipulate genes can be used for his perfection as well as for his destruction. On the brighter and more positive side, genetic engineering can be used to improve the stock of milch cattle, poultry, pigs and other animals by improving their genes and reproducing improved stock. These animals are economically useful for mankind. Through such improvement, it might become cheaper to transform indigestible vegetable proteins into milk, eggs and meat, and thus improve nutritional standards throughout the world. This would be particularly important in under-developed countries where such improvement is urgently needed. Once animal geneticists and molecular biologists get together to pursue purposeful and commercially useful research and developments in animal husbandary, poultry and dairy farming, expeditious progress towards such goals could be assured.
On the other hand genes made under conditions of non-gravity, in space capsules, can lead to controlled mutation. For instance, when genetic engineering is fully developed, tailor-made athletes or robot-like feeling-proof monsters with immense physical powers but extremely limited mental powers can be turned out in large numbers by a dictator. The prospect verily recalls to one’s mind the terrifying world conjured by the late Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World, where manipulation with genes creates a vast number of mindless proletarians and a clever unscrupulous minority of the powerful who run the show.
The way man has abused other blessings of science like nuclear technology leaves little room for hope. The ability to run out millions of human beings, at moment’s notice in gene factories may make us ignore the finer aspects of human values. Will there be scope for poetry, fine art, gallantry, appreciation of beauty and expression of affection and love in a world of heartless robots? No doubt, with rapid advances in genetic engineering it may be that man can play God on earth. But only God can help mankind if some among them were to decide instead to play the very Devil with such unlimited power for good and evil.
Dr. Khorana has thus become the harbinger of a completely new era in human existence. His momentous discovery poses a great challange to mankind. The ethical man has to make the effort here and now to keep pace with his scientific counterpart if he is not to destroy himself by his own prowess.