An Introduction to Genetic Engineering

An Introduction to Genetic Engineering

Genetics is a field which has been rapidly changing over the last 60 years, and is greatly improving our knowledge of how physical and behavioural traits are inherited. Scientific and technological advances in genetics has transformed agriculture, biology, medicine, zoology, anthropology, forensic science and more.

The ability to design and create new genetic sequences, and insert them into animals, insects, viruses, bacteria and plants has been one of the greatest uses of genetics. This is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome, to produce desired results. This has led to a huge influx in research around the subject, and has a many practical applications in the world.

It requires a gene to be selected and isolated that can then be inserted into the genetically modified organism. In plants this is mostly genes that provide protection against insects or tolerance to herbicides. Enzymes are used to cut DNA into fragments and gel electrophoresis to separate them out according to length. The desired part can then be extracted. If the gene is well studied, it could be artificially synthesised from information in a genetic library. The gene must be combined with other genetic elements in order to work properly, and can then be inserted into the DNA of the organism which is to become genetically modified to replace a removed gene.

Polymerase Chain Reaction
An agricultural research technician performs a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) procedure to determine the presence of alleles or genes with known function or importance. Copyright IRRI.ORG. Licenced under Creative Commons.

Genetically modified crops have been produced which create plants which are more resistant to disease and pests, and are able to survive in harsher conditions. Animals have also been genetically modified so they grow faster, produce healthier food and resist disease. These have transformed the way in which food is produced and managed.

Gene therapy has also been an area which doctors have been looking at, by supplying patients suffering from a genetic defect healthy copies of a gene in an attempt to improve their quality of life. Genetics also allows genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis to be identified in embryos in a lab by genetic screening, allowing in vitro fertilisation using embryos which do not have the genetic disorder. This allows parents with the condition to have a child in the knowledge that the disorder is not going to affect the child.

There are issues with genetic engineering however, as there have been concerns that this could lead to designer babies or dangerous DNA sequences being released into the gene pool. As this is still a field with many mysteries, care has to be taken that we unknowingly don’t do anything that will have dire environmental consequences in the future.