Genetic modification

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

2. Applications of genetic modification

Genetic modification has many methods and applications, a comprehensive description of which is beyond the scope of this chapter (but see Bioethics; Cloning; Genetics and ethics; Reproduction and ethics; Genetic modification of animals). It is, however, worthwhile to briefly outline some of the predominant ways that genetic modification occurs (or may occur in the future), as these can help inform how the relevant philosophical and ethical issues arise and are understood.

As discussed (see §1), the term genetic modification can be applied to a range of (direct and intentional) interventions that change the genetic complement within a cell. The first GMO, a novel strain of bacteria, was produced in 1973 by US scientists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen. They used recombinant DNA technology to isolate and move a gene from one bacterial strain to another; conferring antibiotic resistance. The following year, the same techniques were used by a different team to produce genetically modified mouse embryos. At the advent of the recombinant DNA revolution in the 1970s, following these early experiments a decision was taken by the scientists themselves to invoke a moratorium on further genetic modification – an early example of industry self-regulation.

The first application of genetic modification in human medicine was introduced in 1982, with the release of an insulin-like product for people living with Type 1 Diabetes: humulin. Twelve years later – and with significant public controversy – the first genetically modified food was made available. The Flavr Savr tomato contained a modified gene intended to invoke a longer shelf life and better flavour. In the years since, more genetically modified foods have been approved and introduced in countries like the United States, with modifications to soybeans and corn among the most prevalent. Intentions behind plant genetic modification have included enhancing nutritional value of foods such as rice, or making crops more resistant to pests – as has occurred with cotton planted in North America. In contrast to the permissive approach taken in North America, the European Union enacted a moratorium on GM crops from 1999 to 2004. Restrictions on GM crops persist in several EU countries.

Genetic modification remains rare in the production of non-human animals for human food consumption. At the time of writing, just one GM animal – the AquAdvantage Salmon – had received regulatory approval, but only in North America and it is not yet sold to consumers. However, several initiatives to bring genetically modified livestock to market are ongoing and genetic modification of animals in the research setting is routine. One research application of GM in non-human animals is the production of animal models for human diseases, in the hope of generating new or better treatments. Future possible uses of genetic modification in non-human animals are broad and include ends that could be said to benefit humans, non-human animals, or the environment. For example, a particular pest could be modified to extinction, or an animal used in agriculture could be altered to have a lower environmental impact. DNA extracted from the remains of deceased species could even be used for so-called de-extinction (Kaebneck and Jennings 2017). These applications of genome modification raise ethical concerns over instrumentalisation of non-human animals (see Animals and ethics), among other issues (see §4–7).

Applications of genetic modification relevant to humans include: modifying viruses for use in human vaccines or to prevent infection, in vitro modification of human tissues (for example, to create chimeric embryos, which contain genomes from more than one type of organism), gene therapies intended to cure or prevent disease, or enhancing interventions (see §7). One ethically relevant distinction in human genetic modification is between somatic and germline interventions (see §1). Despite its more benign ethical status (as changes are not intended to be inherited), somatic genetic modification has not been without controversy. Concerns have arisen when human participants in gene therapy clinical trials have been harmed, or have died. This raises the ethical question of when a genetic modification should be deemed safe; what threshold of risk is acceptable; and who should determine this (see §5).

Thus, just as genetic modification is a broad term, so are its current – and possible future – applications. This breadth of typologies and uses also means that genetic modification in plants, non-human animals, and humans gives rise to a wide range of ethical and philosophical issues.

Citing this article:
Newson, Ainsley J. and Anthony Wrigley. Applications of genetic modification. Genetic modification, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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