Biotechnology, genetic engineering and our responsibility for nature

Rapid technological development in genetic engineering and biotechnology raises fundamental questions about our responsibility for nature. If we simply leave industry to answer these questions anything technically feasible might be put into practice without actually considering the long- term impacts on people, animals, the environment or on future generations.

Life is not simply about individual genes – it is organised into cells, organisms and interactions with the environment. Cells are the smallest living units of life forms, and as such are indivisible and at most differential. Cell organisation is subsequently important in the relationship between individual components, but not even the analysis of individual parts can make this completely clear or understandable. Ultimately “life“ can only ever be seen as a whole.
Genetic engineering, on the other hand, treats living organisms as if they were simply an accumulation of DNA, whose individual components can be recombined like pieces of Lego. The strategy behind this is to reduce the actual complexity of life functions, and then concentrate on the apparently controllable individual parts. The segment selected to be investigated, controlled and manipulated is only ever an ancillary construction often determined by economic interests, and frequently having nothing at all to do with biological reality.
The genome and the epigenome are in constant interaction with the environment. They are part of a complex system that has been optimised over billions of years, the characteristics of which amount to far more than its individual parts. Life in its present forms and its further evolution are a continuum dating back billions of years.
Today technical advances have made it possible to create cells that are very different to the those arising from primordial cells. We can create life that will interact with existing life forms and change, disrupt or even destroy their further deveopment, self-regulation and ecological networks. All the indication are that we are currently just at the start of environmental pollution on an unprecedented scale: The uncontrolled spread of technically created genomes and organisms into the biosphere of planet earth.
There is clearly a need for statutory regulation: Each and every release of a genetically manipulated organism must – insofar as it is not prohibited – be at least controllable in its spatial and temporal dimensions. Ethical boundaries need to take the integrity of the genome into consideration. Genes and living organisms must be excluded from patenting.