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.)
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.
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.