Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases

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Ho, Mae-Wan ; Traavik, Terje ; Olsvik, Orjan ; Tappeser, Beatrix ; Howard, C. Vyvyan ; Weizsacker, Christine von ; McGavin, George C. (2011)
  • Publisher: Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease
  • Journal: Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease (issn: 1651-2235, eissn: 1651-2235)
  • Related identifiers: doi: 10.3402/mehd.v10i1.7823

According to the 1996 WHO Report, the world is heading for a major crisis in public health as outbreaks of new and re-emerging infectious diseases are striking at increasing frequencies within the past 10 to 15 years. The current strains of pathogens are moreover, resistant to known treatments; some strains being resistant to all or nearly all drugs and antibiotics. Horizontal gene transfer is now generally recognized to be responsible for the evolution of virulence and the spread of drug and antibiotic resistances. Many pathogens have crossed species barriers, having acquired genes from phylogenetically distant species that are involved in their ability to cause diseases. Recent findings document the extremely wide scope of horizontal gene transfer and the extensive recombination between genetic material from unrelated species that have contributed to the emergence of virulence and antibiotic resistances. The past 15 years coincide with the development of genetic engineering biotechnology on a commercial scale. Genetic engineering depends on designing vectors for cloning and transferring genes and involves artificially recombining and manipulating genes from unrelated species and their viral pathogens, thereby enhancing the probability for horizontal gene transfer and recombination. The urgent question which needs to be addressed is the extent to which genetic engineering biotechnology, by facilitating horizontal gene transfer and recombination, is contributing to the resurgence of infectious, drug-resistant diseases, and will continue to do so if allowed to proceed unchecked. An enquiry into the possible contribution of genetic engineering biotechnology to the etiology of infectious diseases is all the more pressing in the light of other relevant recent findings indicating that microorganisms genetically engineered for ‘contained use’ may not be effectively contained. Thus, biologically ‘crippled’ strains of bacteria can survive in the environment to exchange genes with other species; DNA released from cells is not readily broken down in the environment, thereby retaining the ability to transform organisms; some viral DNA can be more infectious than the virus itself; and routine chemical treatments for inactivating pathogenic microorganisms and viruses, before they are discharged into the environment, may be ineffective, leaving a substantial percentage of pathogens in an active infectious state. The combination of the different kinds of evidence is sufficiently compelling, especially in view of the precautionary principle, to warrant, at the very least, an independent public enquiry into genetic engineering biotechnology and the etiology of infectious diseases.Keywords: horizontal gene transfer, virulence, antibiotic resistance, naked DNA.
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