Editing the Building Blocks of Life

Modifying DNA; It's not just in sci-fi movies anymore

You know those half-human-half-some-other-animal creatures that you see or read about in science fiction? Well, stuff like that is all coming to life. Kind of. Genetic Technology, or more commonly, Gene Technology, is any technique of modifying genetic material. It is a relatively new technology that allows scientists to do things like combine different types of DNA, improve the quality of crops, and protect plants and animals (including humans) from disease. There are a lot of regulations for genetically modified (GM) products that help keep us safe from bacteria. Some people argue that consumption of GM foods can lead to chronic illnesses, and there are studies that support that. But genetic technology has helped products grow stronger and faster, so there are both pros and cons to it.

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Scientists do engineering?

In a way... Genetic engineering usually involves the process of altering genetic code. It is one form of Gene Technology. Scientists use genetic engineering to create and store "DNA fingerprints" that can be used for identification purposes, to make hybrid plants and animals, and to produce useful substances (to treat diseases). Most of the time, this process requires extracting a gene from one organism and inserting it into the genome of another organism.

A very common example of this is when scientists produce what is known as Humulin, or human insulin. It helps treat diabetes by balancing blood sugar levels. In a lab, scientists take human DNA and cut out the insulin-making gene with enzymes. Then they use enzymes once again to cut a chunk out of bacteria DNA to make room for the human insulin gene, which they then insert into the opening in the bacteria DNA. That new modified bacterium with hybrid DNA is then continuously cloned, resulting in a sufficient amount of human insulin.

The process of making Humulin shows how recombinant DNA (rDNA) is made. In rDNA terms, the human is the donor organism, the open bacteria DNA strand is the vector, the hybrid DNA is the recombinant DNA, and the end product, Humulin, is the colony. Making recombinant DNA is a main genetic engineering technique.

Another use of genetic engineering is modifying the DNA of one organism so it is able to carry another organism's offspring. Geneticsandsociety.org says that George Church and his colleagues at Harvard University have "removed the DNA sequences of endogenous retroviruses from the genomes of pigs so as to make their tissues and organs suitable for transplantation into humans." This is to help women with infertility issues by having pigs carry their children instead of other humans. Yes, it sounds crazy, but it is apparently "a large step taken towards curing the disease of infertility."

Genetic engineering is also used for plants. There are actually some natural forms of genetic engineering, but most of the time it's done in labs. The ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications) explains how transgenic crops are usually developed. It is very similar to the insulin-making process. First, a segment of DNA is extracted from an organism that has a gene of interest. Then the specific gene is identified and cloned to create a "gene package". There are different methods for introducing the gene package into the plant's cells, but the most common one is to use a gene gun. Once the package is inserted, the plant is now transgenic. If the crop turns out to be succesful, it is bred. Then finally, years later, it is put on the market.

There is a lot of controversy as to whether or not eating transgenic/GM crops (as described in the last paragraph) is good for you. Many people say it causes health problems because the toxic foreign genes inserted into the food can transfer into humans when consumed. But, on the other side of the argument, GM crops have more nutrients and don't produce as much greenhouse gas emissions.

What is Genetic Engineering?

As you can see, Genetic Technology can change the way we make medicine and treat diseases, reproduce, grow crops, and do many more things. In some ways, gene technology and engineering already has affected society (GMOs, medicines, etc). Some people believe it is a bad change and others think it's for the better, but overall it will definitely alter the way we are forever, as a society and as individuals. Right down to the DNA.