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What Is Genetic Engineering?

By S. Scolari
Updated May 22, 2024
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Genetic engineering is the the use of various methods to manipulate the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)of cells to produce biological products or to change hereditary traits. Techniques used include using needles to insert DNA into an ovum, hybridomas (hybrids of cancer cells and of cells that make a desired antibody), and recombinant DNA, in which the DNA of a desired gene is inserted into the DNA of a bacterium. The bacterium then reproduces itself, yielding more of the desired gene. Another type is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which refers to a lab process in which a particular DNA segment is quickly replicated to create a large, easily analyzable sample. The process makes perfect copies of DNA fragments and is used in DNA fingerprinting.

The Human Genome Project, an ambitious attempt to map each human gene, was completed in 2003. Armed with this information, scientists hope to treat and cure many types of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Huntington's disease, and neurofibromatosis (Elephant Man's disease.)

genetic engineering

Many genetically engineered products are already on the market. These include bacteria designed to digest oil slicks and industrial waste products, growth hormones for both humans and cows, drugs such as interferon and insulin, and plants that are resistant to insects and disease.

Genetic engineering techniques have also been used in the alteration of livestock and laboratory animals. The most famous of these animals was Dolly, the first cloned sheep. Genetically engineered products require the approval of at least one U.S. government agency, such as the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency.

genetic engineering

The first genetically engineered pet was marketed in 2003 when scientists inserted a jellyfish gene into the common zebrafish to make them glow yellow-green in the dark. "Frankenfish" was expected to be a big novelty item but sales were flat.

Many people question both the ethics and the safety of genetic engineering. Because the science is so new, there is no way of predicting potential consequences to human health and safety should a genetically engineered animal escape the lab or if genetically altered food should turn out to have unexpected consequences. Several cases of genetically altered wheat infecting normal wheat crops have been reported. The infected crops were destroyed.

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Discussion Comments

By GenevaMech — On Nov 16, 2010

@ aplenty- Genetic engineering has its disadvantages and your example of golden rice is a prime example. First of all, it would be much cheaper to give every citizen suffering from iodine deficiency two iodine pills per year than it would be to genetically modify rice. Besides, there are questions to the ability of the body to actually assimilate the vitamin A in Golden Rice, and so far, it is likely a waste of money.

Second, what happens when golden rice contaminates other strains of rice and then an unforeseen impact has a negative effect on golden rice? Genetically engineered crops have a tendency to become dominant species, but their long-term interactions in local ecosystems are unknown.

Finally, creating another technologically engineered solution only creates a situation where developing nations are further dependent on industrialized nations to survive. This does the opposite of actually helping people pull themselves out of poverty. Disadvantaged groups become even more indebted instead. We should be careful in blindly unleashing genetically modified organisms into the environment.

By aplenty — On Nov 16, 2010

@ Amphibious54- Scientists are actually using genetic engineering to design plants like the one that you talk about. The plant is called Golden Rice, and it will help to eliminate iodine deficiency related diseases in the developing world. This innovation could be the key to eliminating some of the diseases that afflict some of the world's poorest people.

Sometimes it does seem like scientists only work for multi-national drug, chemical, mining, and energy companies that tend to treat disadvantaged communities like dirt, but this is not always the case. There is still hope for humanity, and golden rice could be one of those keys to making life better for those suffering the most.

By Amphibious54 — On Nov 16, 2010

When will scientists do something useful for the poor countries with genetic engineering? Over 600 million people per year suffer from goiter and mental retardation as a result of acute iodine efficiency. The simple remedy is vitamin A, and you would think with all of the capabilities of genetic engineering, that scientists would use genetic engineering of crops so they produce more vitamin A. What ever happened to the days when scientists worked for the greater good of society, and not just for the people with the deepest pockets?

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