What Is Genetic Engineering?
Genetic engineering refers to the set of technologies that directly manipulate on an organism’s genes, change the genetic make up of cells and add one or more new traits that are not found in that organism. At the heart of all life is what we call DNA. It is responsible for the abundance of life on this Earth and the reason why we are the way we are. The genetic make-up of any organism is defined by DNA. In nature, the genetic nature never remains fixed.
It mutates and changes according to need, something that was discovered by humans many years ago. Breeding certain breeds of animals together, grafting stems from one plant to another, all of these were early attempts at changing the genetic makeup of the life around us. In scientific terms, it is called genetic engineering. To understand genetic engineering, we will have to know how it works.
Genes rarely ever comprise of a single genetic material. The more complex an organism becomes, the more genetic material it has. Much of it has no use and only a small fraction of it is responsible for our specific characteristics. For example, humans and apes share some 99% of their DNA. It is the rest 1% which can be used to create such spectacular differences.
It is also the amount from which active genetic material is extracted and introduced to a new host cell, usually bacteria. This allows it to perform or inherit a certain function from the new genetic material. If it sounds too tough to understand genetic engineering, just imagine that artificial insulin for diabetics is produced through this method.
The applications of this field are growing each day. One example is the production of insulin for diabetes patients. The field of medicine is reaping the benefits of genetic engineering. They have used the process to create vaccines and human growth hormones, changing the lives of many in the process. Gene therapy has been developed, which could possibly provide a cure for those who suffer from genetic illnesses.
It has also found a place of importance in research. As scientists successfully understand genetic engineering, they use it to resolve issues in current research methods. Most of these are done with the help of genetically modified organisms.
Process of Genetic Engineering
1. Identification of an organism that exhibits the desired trait or gene of interest.
2. Extracting the DNA from that organism.
3. Through a process called gene cloning, one desired gene (recipe) must be located and copied from thousands of genes that were extracted.
4. The gene is slightly modified to work in a more desirable way once it is inserted inside the recipient organism.
5. The transformation process occurs when new gene(s), called a transgene is delivered into cells of the recipient organism. The most common transformation technique uses a bacteria that naturally genetically engineer plants with its own DNA. The transgene is inserted into the bacteria, which then delivers it into cells of the organism being engineered.
6. The characteristics of the final product is improved through the process called traditional breeding.
Science has been able to genetically engineer animals and plants alike. While the animals are used in research or sold as a novelty pet item, the plants have a different purpose. Following the years of pesticide and insecticide use, most pests have developed an immunity to them. With the help of scientists that understand genetic engineering, farmers now benefit from seeds that have been engineered.
They are provided with traits from other plants that can naturally balance the plant-pest relationship. As expected, the use of such engineering has become heavily commercialized and is used to produce more attractive varieties of food.
Genetically modified food is not an experimental project. Foods that have been engineered to look, smell and taste better have found their place in the supermarket shelves since 1994. That’s twenty years ago and the trend has become habit. Apart from their looks, foods are produced simply for consumer convenience, such as seedless fruits.
As of now, soybean, cotton seed oil, corn and canola are the most advanced of the modified crops. Most of the livestock grown in the country is feed with crops that were genetically modified, making them partly genetically modified organisms in the long run. For those that understand genetic engineering, the growing use of the technology is quite alarming.
However, not all is wonderful in world of genetic engineering. It has been launched into controversy many times over the last decade. Since it is still a fledgling technology whose implications are yet not clear, there are many liberties taken with it. Lack of policy and laws makes it easy for research based companies to misuse the work of those that understand genetic engineering.
Most concerns regarding genetically modified food and animals are the ethical ramifications, while others are related to problems in the ecology and future misuse of the technology. As a result, the process and technology is highly regulated as of now.
Even with the regulations and laws being passed to reign in the rampant abuse of genetic engineering, the process is not in a hurry to stop. The government is pushing for one step at a time, such as labeling foods as “GM Foods” in markets to help the customers make their own choice. But the commercial advantages are quite high and further research will be able to possibly solve many of our health and poverty related issues. This is the biggest argument in the favor of engineering. Even so, it takes a lot many years to fully understand genetic engineering.
Image credit: stumayhew
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