Artificial Selection and its Application to Medicine

We and all living things that are around us are here as a result of natural selection (for the most part). Proposed initially by Charles Darwin, natural selection refers to the notion that subsequent generations are ‘selected’ based on their ability to survive and withstand the demands that nature places upon them. When these selective forces are no longer ‘natural’, such as climate variations or food scarcity, but instead imposed upon a particular organism by human intervention it is termed ‘artificial selection’. Examples include the selective breeding of dogs for various favorable traits, breeding of racehorses, the selection of high quality crops and many other agricultural examples. Although it mainly remains a pursuit for the future, artificial selection also has many potential applications in the field of medicine, a few of which are mentioned below.

Stem cell research is one area where artificial selection has applications. The ethical questions that arise in the setting of stem cell research have remained a hot media topic in recent years, but it seems inevitable that research will be permitted. Stem cells are able to become any cells of the body and are a perfect match to each individual, a godsend for many hopeful recipients out there. Artificial selection allows researches to select only the best stem cells from their Petri dish. Furthermore, once these stem cells are allowed to differentiate into organs, the best organs can be selected so the recipient receives the best possible benefit.

Artificial selection also offers hope to many of those with genetic conditions, who have come to accept their lifelong affliction (e.g. cystic fibrosis). I’m talking about DNA therapy, in which a ‘normal’ (i.e. unmutated or ‘wild-type’) gene is placed into a virus genome (genetic makeup), and that virus introduced into the affected human after being rendered harmless. These viruses are then able to integrate the normal human DNA into the expression profile of human cells so that the missing or abnormal protein can be replaced by the correct version. Essentially, we can selectively breed the best viruses that are able to make the good protein and introduce these viruses into a person so that they can function normally. DNA vaccines also work on a similar principle, where the virus makes a protein that helps to resist infection. This is an exciting opportunity and offers hope to many people around the world. The technology and widespread use is still in the future, but artificial selection will surely play an important role in maximizing the return for our investment in such pursuits.

Drug production can also benefit from artificial selection. Some of our medications are made by genetically modified bacteria, as described above. Selection technology can allow laboratories to breed viruses that are able to make the compounds at the fastest rate, improving the efficiency of medicine production.

With these and many other potential applications, artificial selection is sure to increase in importance in medicine in the future. Before we reach the promises that it offers, we need more research to ensure safety, more investment in technology, and we need to overcome the ethical barriers. Once stem cell research and artificial selection become commonplace, the floodgates will open to a world of medical advancement and improvement in the health of thousands, if not millions, worldwide.