Fifty years ago, biologists were unraveling an amazing biological process, highly reminiscent of something Chazal had said all along.

In Parshas Terumah, the Zohar states: “Meritorious are all those who toil in Torah, because when the Holy One created the world, he looked inside the Torah and created the world and the world was created with the Torah… Whoever looks into the Torah and toils in it, as it were, he sustains the whole world. The Holy One looked into the Torah and created the world; a person looks into the Torah and sustains the world. Thus one fi nds that the creation and sustenance of the whole world is Torah, and therefore, happy is the person who toils in Torah as he sustains the world.”

Just as the Torah encodes creation, so biologists now discovered that the secrets of what makes a dog a dog and a chimpanzee a chimpanzee are libraries of coded instructions, sited in cell nuclei, nowadays known as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Once scientists began delving into the secrets of the biological code, it dawned on them that there might be some way to tinker with it and make changes. Imagine what they could achieve! Giant tomatoes, champion egg-laying chickens, cows that produce rivers of milk, super intelligent dogs. Perhaps every child could be transformed into a genius!

One of the first scientists to break ground in this exciting new field was Joshua Lederberg, son of Rav Zvi Hirsh Lederberg who had moved to Washington Heights from Eretz Yisroel during the 5680s/1920s and yearned that his son become a talmid chochom like himself. Instead, Joshua Lederberg wished to unearth the secrets of the biological universe. One of the highlights of his career was his discovery that there is chesed in the microscopic world.

Until then, people had thought that bacteria were lone wolves, each living out its existence in total oblivion of its billions of cousins. Then Lederberg discovered that bacteria not only take notice of each other but also even help each other out.

For example, one of medicine’s major concerns is the propensity of bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics by altering their DNA. To make matters worse, once a bacterium develops a resistance, it passes its resistance not only to its direct descendants, but also to other bacteria in its vicinity. It does this by transferring its new antibiotic defeating ability in clumps of DNA known as plasmids.

Thus, like many of man’s inventions, genetic engineering has actually been practiced by bacteria ever since maasei bereishis. All scientists had to do was to replicate the process. Another example of this trend is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity that led to the development of fission bombs. The sun had already been producing energy, light, and heat, through nuclear fusion (the fusion of hydrogen atoms into larger helium atoms) for the past five millennia, every second producing two billion times more energy than a major power plant could produce in a year.

Two scientists jumped to unravel the secrets of genetic engineering, each one unaware of the other’s existence.

One of them was an associate professor of medicine, Stanley Cohen of Stanford University, who was studying how to introduce plasmids into bacteria through artificial means.

Forty miles away, biochemist and genetic engineer, Herbert Boyer of the University of California San Francisco, was working on dissecting DNA into pieces and recombining the fragments to create new molecules. He did this with enzymes, slicing out strings of DNA and reattaching them to other strands. He had no idea what this new DNA could do in real life since he had no way of introducing his artificial DNA into living cells.

In April 5732/1972, when the two scientists happened to meet at a scientific conference in Hawaii, they probably felt much the same as Achashverosh felt when Haman came along with his plan to kill the Jews. Cohen was adept at introducing DNA into cells, while Boyer had something new to introduce into them, a perfect match! Boyer would tinker with Cohen’s plasmids, turning them into new forms, Cohen would guide them into bacterial cells, and then the two savants would sit back and see what happened next.

Although no world plague broke out from their experiments, scientists were nervous enough to set guidelines that research be conducted in sealed labs and that the bacteria be weakened to prevent artificially-enhanced superbugs from accidentally escaping and wreaking havoc. For his groundbreaking work, Cohen received the Nobel Prize in 5746/1986, and Boyer founded a company that developed insulin that produced E. coli bacteria by 5738/1978.

This was the beginning of genetic engineering (GE), a science that has broken out of the laboratory into our factories and farms, and has an influence on a very high percent of the food on our supermarket shelves, including genetically-enhanced tomatoes that survive longer on grocery store shelves, as well as corn, potato, squash, soy beans and milk. About 3,000 new foods are presently at the testing stage or awaiting government approval.

Genetic engineering also has health benefits. Scientists are working on providing a substitute for the Streptococcus mutans bacteria that chews holes in our teeth by turning the sugars left in our mouths into acid. The goal is to develop a new variety of these bacteria that will turn sugar into ethanol alcohol, presumably of too small a quantity to cause drinking problems.

Another victory in the battle against tooth decay is the artificial sweetener, aspartame, also created by genetically altered bacteria.

Genetic engineering can be lifesaving. Besides developing insulin from bacteria, as mentioned before, it has also led to the development of clotting factor to help hemophiliacs (people whose blood does not clot properly), and cures are being developed for previously incurable diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy.

Beyond health and food, GE has also been used for less vital purposes such as creating the “glo-fish,” the first ever genetically modified pets. This was achieved by transferring the genes that make jellyfish fluoresce (light up) in the dark to ordinary zebra fi sh.

Can genetic engineering present halachic problems when genes from a treif organism are implanted in a kosher animal or plant? Although a thorough halachic analysis is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting that the OU generally sees no problem in the process. As they explained, the chemicals transported into the new organism are not the original ones taken from the treif donor.

This was in reply to the following query sent to them by a non-Jew: “Are there any halachic ramifi cations involved in the permissibility of such bio-engineered food? For instance: Is there a problem with a potato that resists disease with the help of a chicken gene?”

In reply, the OU wrote that this presents no kashrus problems since, “The non-kosher gene is not implanted into the potato plant itself. Rather the non-kosher gene serves as a chemical formulation, which is on memory much like a magnetic tape. This formulation is then reproduced onto materials taken from yeast and then introduced into the plant via bacterium. The reproduced gene now in the plant is thus from a totally kosher source. None of the original chicken material appears in the plant…”

In other words, the DNA transmitted to the receiving species is not the original DNA of the donor since that original DNA is chemically purified and copied millions of times in a laboratory, either through chemical methods or in a bacterial cell.

Incidentally, this approach that the implanted substance is not from the original animal or plant might also preclude the problem of kilayim.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and other poskim have discussed whether introducing DNA from one species of plant or animal to another might not be a problem of mixed species. If this DNA is not the original plant/animal material but only a copy, it seems this problem might not exist.

Since GE permanently alters the genomes of animals and plants, many people are concerned that if anything goes wrong, it will be here to stay; plants may even spread over vast areas pushing out natural populations. What would happen if scientists accidentally developed a super Bacillus (a type of bacterium) that has no cure, or a plant that kills huge numbers of beneficial insects? Even worse, what would happen if evil people use GE to produce weapons of mass destruction?

As Rav Eliyahu Dessler warns in his discussion of the nature of wisdom: “There is one principle we may not forget: just as there is “wealth which may lead to the owner’s downfall” (Eicha 5:12), so there is knowledge which only brings disaster on its possessors. What use are teeming cities or skyscraper blocks, if the quality of life is depressed? The wealth rises up and mocks its possessors. If the human being is not master of the wealth but the wealth the master of the human being, what good is it to him?

“What advantage is there in scientific knowledge if human beings cannot control it; if it breaks all bonds, joins with the evil in the human being, and produces results the opposite of those intended?”

Regarding these sorts of questions, the jury is out. Despite claims that the process can be kept perfectly safe with adequate controls, a number of US counties have banned GE crops out of a healthy fear of the unknown.

In the final analysis, GE has potential to be a blessing or a bane. Although the research of Lederberg and Cohen seems to be leading to more food and superior health, no one is sure of the consequences of meddling with the genetic code Hashem instilled within every living creature.

(Source of the insight from Rav Dessler: Strive for Truth. Feldheim, 1978.)

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