Genetic engineering is that part of the technology that deals with the genetic transformation or genetic manipulation in organisms. Those can involve a simple single-celled organism or multicellular human beings. Genetic engineering has changed the face of science and our perspectives on the way we used to think about how technology is only limited to computer networks and big machines. Genetic engineering is a part of biotechnology. Genetic engineering knows no bounds. It can produce new organisms just by the manipulation in the DNA structure either by artificial synthesis or isolation. The organism thus produced is called a genetically modified organism (GMO). The first-ever genetically modified organism to come into existence was a bacterium produced by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in 1973. It is just not organisms we are talking about. There have been produced genetically modified foods and proteins. For example, insulin was first developed in 1978 and the genetically produced insulin bacteria were commercialized in 1982.
Before we move any further it is our utmost priority to know about the types of genetic engineering that exist in today’s world. Broadly they can be classified into three main categories:
The recombination of DNA is the category that is mainly used by scientists as it has proven results. Recombinant DNA is the technology where two or more DNA molecules from two different species are inserted into a host organism to produce new genetic results and combinations. The Gene of interest is inserted into the plasmid vector for the desired genetic modification we are looking for. The DNA sequence that is created can be original or synthetically produced and may be inserted into a whole different organism. Recombinant DNA is known to be the foundation to produce new vaccines and proteins such as human insulin that is another form of blood sugar. It is also used to produce clotting hormones and gene manipulation. The biggest disadvantage of recombinant DNA is that it can lead to cross-contamination with no way to cure it. Also in plants, genetic modification can cause an outbreak of new weeds which may be hard to control.
Gene delivery is the process somewhat similar to the technique of recombinant DNA. However, in this, the foreign DNA or RNA is inserted into the nucleus of the host organism to include gene expression. Gene delivery is a very versatile approach and can target any cellular growth through localized tissue development. Different methods that can be used for gene delivery are chemical, heat shock, calcium phosphate, liposomes, nanoparticles, and polymers. Electroporation is another method that is used for gene delivery.
Gene editing or genome editing is the type of genetic engineering that is used to change an organism’s DNA. These technologies allow the DNA to be added, removed, or altered in a genome. In genome editing, the undesired DNA sequence is removed and a new sequence can be inserted in the same place. Genome editing is used to detect diseases in animals and humans and also provide a cure for it. Genomes of animals like mouse, fish, turtles are edited and the possible outcome is counted. There is a fun fact that the genes of humans and mice are nearly 85% the same. That is why major test subjects for any kind of DNA alterations are mice so that the results can be compared to how they would react in the human body. CRISPR is a type of cut and paste technology which is used to carry out the genome editing process.
The whole genetic engineering is accomplished in three major steps:
Isolation of DNA fragments from the donor
The insertion of donated DNA fragments to a vector genome
The growth of the recombinant vector in a separate or new host
These three steps are used to genetically modify any plant or a human or even an animal.
Stephen Hawking once in an interview mentioned that genetic engineering was going to be a breakthrough in the technology. We could alter the DNA but it would be a slow process as it would take about 18 years to see the effect of the genetic modification.
The advantages of genetic engineering are beyond calculations but it would not take seconds for this boon to turn into a bane if it was used in a wrong way. Creating an organism or editing its genetics is a great sense of responsibility.
How can genetic engineering be helpful?
Curing diseases: tackling and defeating diseases can be the prime benefit of genetic engineering. Some diseases have no cure to date but by the means of genetic engineering by altering the born composition it is possible to cure all the complex diseases which are considered life-ending. For example, HIV and cystic fibrosis have no cures till now. But they can have one soon with the help of genetic engineering. There are endless genetic mutations that a human can suffer from and will never end until we intervene and actively genetically engineer the next generation.
Ending disease in unborn and young children: if at all genetic engineering could be of any help it can be in this department. Certain diseases can be detected even before the child is born. The doctors can tell you if your child is going to suffer from Down syndrome or anaemia. There are certain reasons which make the parents reconsider the fact of whether to have the baby or abort it. But with genetic engineering, all of this could end. There are certain diseases which are inherited, genetic engineering can provide you with the solution to cure all of these diseases in the womb itself without the baby even being born.
Production of new and more food: genetic engineering has proven to be the cause of synthetically produced proteins and food. Insulin is now being prepared by methods of genetic engineering. Various techniques have enabled us to produce harvest by genetically mutating plants. There are large greenhouses for the special purpose of the production of a good variety of fresh produce. The foods produced are healthier than the original and also provide some of the hybrid varieties.
Tailor-made organisms: the organisms can be altered accordingly which will work as an advantage to the whole ecosystem. For example, trees can be made in such a way that they could absorb more carbon dioxide so that the threat of global warming reduces providing a clean atmosphere. The genetic disorders in humans, animals, or plants can be treated by replacing a faulty gene with a working gene. Disease carrying insects like mosquitos which are responsible for various diseases from one organism to another can be sterilized and instead can be used to curb such diseases especially dengue and malaria for which the cases have increased quite rapidly.
Why is genetic engineering a bad idea?
It does not feel right: There are several reasons why genetic engineering will be a massive success but it is not right to do so. To cure diseases in a human we may overlook the fact that death and disease is the part where the ecosystem maintains its balance. Scientifically speaking, the end of diseases would mean the death rate would decline which will soon cause the planet to overpopulate. The earth is already populated with 7 billion people and sure does not have room for more. Living longer is already associated with so many social problems.
Genetic defects: playing around with DNA is no joke. When you alter the DNA of an organism you are not sure whether the body is going to accept it or is going to cause genetic complications resulting in permanent damage of the genes and causing a defect in the body. It is advisable to not do such experiments because the whole field of biotechnology is still new and under the development stage.
Decreased nutritional value: genetic alterations in the plants which are used to produce fruits and vegetables can have decreased nutritional value as they are artificially produced and are not organic.
Increased risk of pathogens: there is an increased risk of pathogens that can cause various diseases. The bacteria needs a favorable temperature to grow in and once it achieves that it can multiply twice as fast. They are more resistant and can cause damage to plants and organisms.
Genetic engineering can be used to change the diversity and its causes. It is not favorable to do so because, in our environment, there exist species and breeds which are not much strong and are not adapted to change. This would mean completely demolishing them and creating a way for stronger created organisms. Genetic engineering can also go far with the new evolution of organisms. Though there are things to love about genetic engineering there are things that may want to think us twice about our decision to move forward with it. Genetic engineering can be the predecessor to the future which no one has imagined would exist in years to come. It is even possible to create superhumans using genetic engineering in the near future.