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Genetic engineering
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Genetic engineering

Genetic engineering, genetic modification (GM), and gene splicing (once in widespread use but now deprecated) are terms for the process of manipulating genes in an organism, usually outside of the organism's normal reproductive process.

It often involves the isolation, manipulation and reintroduction of DNA into model organisms, usually to express a protein. The aim is introduce new genetic characteristics to an organism to increase its usefulness such as, increasing the yield of a crop species, introducing a novel characteristic, or producing a new protein or enzyme. Examples are the production of human insulin through the use of modified bacteria and the production of new types of mice like the OncoMouse, (cancer mouse) for research, through genetic redesign.

Since a protein is specified by a DNA segment or gene, future copies of that protein can be modified by changing the gene's underlying DNA. One way to do this is to isolate the DNA, cut it, and splice in a different DNA segment. Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Smith received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their isolation of restriction endonucleases, which are able to cut DNA at specific sites. Together with ligase, which can join together fragments of DNA, restriction enzymes formed the initial basis of recombinant DNA technology.

Table of contents
1 Naming
2 Applications
3 Ethics
4 Genetic engineering in fiction
5 See also:
6 External links


Genetic modification or genetic manipulation are claimed to be neutral and possibly more technically correct terms for what is claimed, controversially, to be genetic engineering. Opponents question whether the concept of 'modification', with it's implications of progress, are applicable here.

Many opponents of the use of the term 'genetic engineering' argue the operations of genes in combination with cell biochemistry are rather poorly understood and sometimes lead to unexpected side effects.

Reluctance to recognize this field as "engineering" has become popular in the anti-globalization movement and safe trade movement, and is also widely held by most Green parties, and the major parties of France and Germany, which have resisted any agricultural policy favoring genetically modified food. These groups tend to resist the label 'engineer' as applied to such genetic modification most strongly.

Defenders of the term genetic engineering argue that animal husbandry and crop breeding are also forms of genetic engineering that use artificial selection instead of modern genetic modification techniques. It is politics, they argue, not economics or science, that causes their work to be closely investigated, and for different standards to apply to it than to other fields of engineering. These scientists, however, do not object to the term 'genetic modification' as applied to what they do, although it is sometimes used to deny them the status of professionals serving society in an ethical manner, which is one implication of the term engineer.

The term "genetic engineering" is sometimes informally abbreviated as "genegineering."


One of the best known applications of genetic engineering is genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

There are potentially momentous biotechnology applications of GM, for example oral vaccines produced naturally in fruit at very low cost. This represents, however, a spread of genetic modification to medical purposes and opens an ethical door to other uses of the technology to directly modify human genomes.

These effects are often not traceable back to direct causes in the genome, but rather in the environment or interaction of proteins. The means by which 'genes' (in fact DNA strands that are assumed to have discrete effects) are detected and inserted are inexact, including such means as coating gold particles with DNA to be inserted and literally firing it at strands of target DNA, which is guaranteed to cause insertions in at least some random locations, which can on rare occasion cause unplanned characteristics.

Similar objections apply to protein engineering and molecular engineering for use as drugs. However, a single protein or a molecule is easier to examine for 'quality control' than a complete genome, and there are more limited claims made for the reliability of proteins and molecules, than for the genomes of whole organisms. While protein and molecule engineers often times acknowledge the requirement to test their products in a wide variety of environments to determine if they pose dangers to life, the position of many genetic engineers is that they do not need to do so, since the outputs of their work are 'substantially the same as' the original organism which was produced by the original genome(s).

An extreme ambition of some groups is human augmentation via genetics, eventually by artificial intelligence or molecular engineering. See also: transhumanism.

Genetic engineering and research

Although a there has been a tremendous revolution in the biological sciences in the past twenty years, there is still a great deal that remains to be discovered. The completion of the sequencing of the human genome, as well as the genomes of most agriculturally and scientifically important plants and animals, have increased the possibilities of genetic research immeasurably. Expedient and inexpensive access to comprehensive genetic data has become a reality, with billions of sequenced nucleotides already online and annotated. Now that the rapid sequencing of arbitrarily large genomes has become a simple, if not trivial affair, a much greater challenge will be elucidating function of the extraordinarily complex web of interacting proteins, dubbed the proteome, that constitutes and powers all living things. Genetic engineering has become the gold standard in protein research, and major research process has been made using a wide variety of techniques, including


Genetic engineering proponents argue that the technology is not harmful and necessary for food production to continue to match population growth. However, some argue that it's not a problem of food production but of food distribution. And that the population growth is actually a result of uneven distribution of food (and wealth).

Others oppose genetic engineering on the grounds that genetic modifications may have unforeseen consequences, both in the initially modified organisms, and their environments. For example, certain strains of maize have been developed that are toxic to plant eating insects (see bt corn). However, when those strains cross-polinated with other varieties of wild and domestic maize, the relevant genes were passed on in unintended ways. This modified the very gene pool from which the maize was derived.

Anti-genetic-engineering groups propose that genetic releases such as this represent the opening of a Pandora's box which may ultimately accelerate the collapse of the modern system of agriculture, decreasing rather than increasing the food supply. They say that with current recombinant technology there is no way to ensure that genetically modified organisms remain under control, and the use of this technology outside of secure laboratory environments carries grave risks for the future.

Many also fear that certain types of genetically engineered crops will enable the elimination of all biodiversity in the cropland; herbicide-tolerant crops will for example be treated with the relevant herbicide to the extent that there are no wild plants ('weeds') able to survive, and plants toxic to insects will mean insect-free crops. This could result in major declines in other wildlife (e.g. birds) which depend on weed seeds and/or insects for food resources. The recent (2003) farm scale studies in Britain found this to be the case with GM sugar beet and GM oilseed rape, but not with GM maize (though in the last instance, the non-GM comparison maize crop had also been treated with environmentally damaging pesticides subsequently (2004) withdrawn from use in the EU).

Proponents of current genetic techniques as applied to food plants cite the benefits that the technology can have, for example, in the harsh agricultural conditions of third world countries. They say that with modifications, existing crops would be able to thrive under the relatively hostile conditions providing much needed food to their people. While submitting that precautions should be made to ensure that any modified crops are contained, they say that their genetically engineered crops are not significantly different from those modified by nature or humans in the past, and by extension are not dangerous to other crops. The expansion of new croplands into areas currently too harsh to grow crops is also likely to have deleterious effects on the wildlife currently using these uncultivated areas. There is gene transfer between unicellular eukaryotes and prokaryotes. There have been no known genetic catastrophes as a result of this.

Economic and political effects

Many opponents of current genetic engineering believe the increasing use of GM in major crops has caused a power shift in agriculture towards Biotechnology companies gaining far greater control over the production chain of crops and food then any previous industry, and over the farmers that use their products, as well.

Many proponents of current genetic engineering techniques believe it will bring higher yields and profitability to many farmers, especially those in third world countries.

In April 2004 Hugo Chávez announced a total ban on genetically modified seeds in Venezuela.

Genetic engineering in fiction

Genetic engineering is a popular subject of fiction, especially science fiction.

In Marvel Comics, the 31st century adventurers called the Guardians of the Galaxy are genetically engineered residents of Mercury, Jupiter, and Pluto.

The film Gattaca had themes of genetic engineering.

Star Trek

In the Star Trek universe, genetic engineering has been featured in a couple films, and a number of television episodes.

The Breen, Species 8472, the Xindi, and the Federation use technology with organic components.

Khan Noonian Singh, who appeared in Space Seed and Star Trek II, was a product of genetic engineering. His physical structure was modified to make him stronger and to give him greater stamina than a regular human. His mind was also enhanced. However, the creation of Khan would have serious consequences because the superior abilities given to him created superior ambition. Along with other enhanced individuals, they tried to take over the planet. When they were reawakened by the Enterprise, Khan set himself to taking over the universe. Later, he became consumed by grief and rage, and set himself on the goal of destroying Kirk.

Because of the experiences with genetic engineer, the Federation had banned it except to correct genetic birth defects. But a number of parents still illegaly subjected their children to genetic engineering for a variety of reasons. This often created brilliant but unstable individuals. Such children are not allowed to serve in Starfleet or practice medicine.

Star Wars

In the Star Wars universe, genetic engineering was also used.

In Attack of the Clones, the Kamino cloners who created the clone army for the Galactic Republic had used engineering to enhance their clones. They modified the genetic structure to accelerate their growth rate, make them less independent, and to make them suitied for combat operations.

Later, the Yuuzhan Vong are a race who exclusively use organic technology and regard mechanical technology as heresy. Everything from starships to communications devices to weapons are bred and grown to suit their needs.

See also:

External links