Genetic Engineering 101

Sep 30, 2014 | DNA science

Genetic engineering is a form of genetic modification in which selected genes are taken from one organism and implanted into another to have a desired effect. Genetic engineering enables researchers to improve all aspects of life by impacting areas such as medicine and pharmaceuticals and agriculture.
Genetic engineering or transformation is a popular topic because of its relevance to hot-button topics like cloning and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food. Though many are quick to offer opinions on genetic engineering, few understand what it actually entails. Rare is the person who can speak knowledgeably on the practice of genetically engineering organisms, or its potential benefits.
Similarities and Differences – Traditional Breeding and Genetic Engineering
Genetic engineering is conceptually the same as natural breeding, in which genes are transferred from one organism to another. Both methods function to improve an organism’s traits to help the organism survive both natural and man-made environmental hazards.
In traditional breeding:

  • There is an equal (50-50) contribution of genes from the contributing organisms.
  • Desirable and undesirable traits have an equal likelihood of transferring, so genetic improvement is randomized.

In genetic engineering:

  • Genes are selected based on desirability and transmitted from one organism into another.
  • Genes can be selected from other species depending on desired improvements
  • Genetic improvements occur quickly when the process is successful.

While genetic engineering facilitates more selective trait modification, it does not eliminate the need for traditional breeding. This is because traditional breeding is necessary to improve the characteristics of the genetically engineered organism. Secondly, genetic engineering can be a time-consuming process, taking hundreds of attempts to create only a few successes.
Advantages Made Possible by Genetic Engineering
Genetic engineering has the ability to positively impact all aspects of life.
For example, take an off-shoot of the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in which tobacco plants were infected with a virus that contained a specific gene of DNA. The infected cells began to produce an Ebola-fighting protein that was contained in the tobacco plant’s leaves, which could then be harvested. This innovative approach is called “pharming” and, if successful, could have a transformative impact on this otherwise incurable, highly fatal virus.
Other potential advantages resulting from genetic engineering include:

  • Human Cloning: Thanks to the completion of the human genome project and successful mammal cloning (the results of which are called xenographs), researchers have been able to enhance their understanding of the part DNA plays in all aspects of life.
  • Medicine: Crippling genetic diseases like heart disease, cystic fibrosis, ALS, and others are the results of gene defects. The only hope for cures is genetic modification of a defective gene, or implantation of a genetically modified gene. Researchers have already found gene therapy proves effective in treating heart disease; they have also discovered that genetic engineering enables the re-growth or repair of damaged or malfunctioning muscle cells.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Researchers have been able to better understand the formation of disorders and provide more effective treatment via innovative medicines created by genetically modifying plant DNA.
  • Prenatal Treatment:  Expectant mothers can currently test their fetuses for certain genetic defects. This is used to help families and doctors prepare if a baby will have special needs, but the future of genetic engineering holds promise that could enable expectant parents to choose to treat a genetic defect via gene therapy before the child is even born. Other research poses the possibility that partners could select the genetic traits of their future child.
  • Agriculture: Genetically engineered crops are more resistant to pestilence, drought, salinity, and viruses than non-modified plant species. The resulting plants are not only able to withstand the world’s increasing supply and demand for produce, but they are also able to address famine in countries where millions would either suffer or die otherwise. Realistically, without genetic modification, many plant species would not be able to withstand weed-killing herbicides.

Despite all of the benefits posed by genetic engineering, valid concerns remain on the part of the general public and some within the scientific community. A closely monitored ethical code relative to genetic research will continue to improve all aspects of life.

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