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Genetic Engineering – The Technology of 21st Century

Genetic engineering today is no longer a new term for the world. Every day in newspapers, televisions, magazines new inventions of genetic engineering are noticed. Genetic engineering can be described as the practice of manipulating an organism’s genes in order to produce a desired effect. Other techniques that fall into this category are: recombinant DNA technology, genetic modification (GM) and gene splicing.


The roots of genetic engineering are linked to antiquity. The Bible also sheds some light on genetic engineering where selective breeding is mentioned. Modern genetic engineering began in 1973 when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen used enzymes to cut a bacterial plasmid and inserted another strand of DNA into the gap created. Both pieces of DNA were obtained from the same type of bacteria. This step became the milestone in the history of genetic engineering. As recently as 1990, a young child with an extremely poor immune system received genetic therapy in which some of his white blood cells were genetically manipulated and reintroduced into his bloodstream so that his immune system would function properly.


Genetic engineers hope that with enough knowledge and experimentation, it will be possible in the future to create “custom” organisms. This will lead to new innovations, including possibly adapted bacteria to clean up chemical spills or fruit trees that produce different kinds of fruit in different seasons. In this way, new types of organisms as well as plants can be developed.


Genetic engineering requires three elements: the gene to be transferred, a host cell into which the gene is introduced, and a vector to effect the transfer. First of all, the necessary genes to be manipulated must be “isolated” from the main DNA helix. The genes are then “entered” into a transport medium such as a plasmid. Third, the vector (ie plasmid) is introduced into the organism to be modified. The next step is transformation of the element whereby several different methods, including DNA pistols, bacterial transformation and viral introduction can be used to apply the vector to the new organism. Finally, a separation stage occurs, where the genetically modified organism (GMO) is isolated from other organisms that have not been successfully modified.


Genetic engineering has affected every field of life be it agriculture, food and manufacturing industry, other commercial industries etc. We will discuss them one by one.

1. Agriculture Applications

With the help of genetic engineering it would be possible to prepare clones of genetically modified plants and animals of agricultural importance with desirable characteristics. This will increase the nutritional value of plant and animal foods. Genetic engineering could lead to the development of plants that fix nitrogen directly from the atmosphere rather than from expensive fertilizers. Creating nitrogen-fixing bacteria that can live in the roots of cultivated plants would make it unnecessary to fertilize fields. The production of such self-fertilizing food crops could usher in a new green revolution. Genetic engineering could create microorganisms that could be used for biological control of harmful pathogens, insects, etc.

2. Environmental Applications

Genetically modified microorganisms could be used to degrade waste, in sewage, oil spills, etc. Scientists at General Electric Laboratories in New York added plasmids to create strains of Pseudomonas that can break down a variety of hydrocarbons and are now being used to clean up oil spills. It can degrade 60% of crude oil, while the four parents from which it was derived only break down a few compounds.

3. Industrial Applications

Industrial applications of recombinant DNA technology include the synthesis of substances of commercial importance in industry and pharmaceuticals, the improvement of existing fermentation processes, and the production of proteins from waste.

4. Pharmaceutical Applications

Among the medical applications of genetic engineering are the production of hormones, vaccines, interferon. enzymes, antibodies, antibiotics and vitamins and in gene therapy for certain inherited diseases.


The hormone insulin is currently produced commercially by extracting it from the pancreas of cows and pigs. About 5% of patients, however, suffer from allergic reactions to insulin produced from animals due to the slight difference in its structure from human insulin. Human insulin genes have been implanted into bacteria which, therefore, become capable of synthesizing insulin. Bacterial insulin is identical to human insulin in that it is encoded by human genes.


Injecting an animal with an inactivated virus stimulates it to make antibodies against the viral proteins. These antibodies protect the animal from infection by the same virus by binding to the virus. Phagocytic cells then remove the virus. Vaccines are produced by growing the organism that produces the disease in large quantities. This process is often dangerous or impossible. In addition, there are difficulties in making the vaccine harmless.


Interferons are virus-induced proteins produced by virus-infected cells. It appears to be the body’s first line of defense against viruses. The interferon response is much faster than the antibody response. Interferons have an antiviral effect. A type of interferon may work. Against many different viruses, i.e. it is not virus specific. It is, however, species specific. Interferon from one organism does not provide protection against viruses in cells of another organism. Interferon provides a natural defense against viral diseases such as hepatitis and influenza. It also appears to be effective against certain types of cancer, particularly breast and lymph node cancer. Natural interferon is collected from human blood cells and other tissues. It is produced in very small quantities.


The enzyme urokinase, which is used to dissolve blood clots, has been produced by genetically modified microorganisms.


One of the goals of genetic engineering is the production of hybridomas. These are long-lived cells that can produce antibodies for use against disease.

5. Gene therapy to treat hereditary diseases

Previous gene transfer experiments involved transplanting genes in vitro into isolated cells or bacteria. Gene transplant experiments have now been extended to live animals.

6. In Understanding Biological Processes

Genetic engineering techniques have been used to gain basic knowledge about – biological processes such as gene structure and expression, chromosome mapping, cell differentiation and integration of viral genomes. This could lead to a better understanding of the genetics of plants and animals, and eventually humans.

7. Human Applications

One of the most exciting potential applications of genetic engineering involves the treatment of genetic disorders. Medical scientists now know about 3,000 disorders that result from errors in a person’s DNA. Conditions such as sickle cell disease, Tay-Sachs disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s chorea, cystic fibrosis, and Lesch-Nyhan syndrome are the result of the loss, misinsertion, or change of a single nitrogenous base in a molecule DNA. Genetic engineering enables scientists to provide people who lack a particular gene with correct copies of that gene. The human cloning proposal is still waiting to come to the floor. Genetic engineering has benefited couples who are infertile.

Safe guardians of genetic engineering

General safeguards for recombinant DNA research are described below:

1. Genes coding for the synthesis of toxins or antibiotics should not be introduced into bacteria without proper precautions

2. Animal genes, animal viruses or tumor viruses should also not be introduced into bacteria without proper precautions.

3. Laboratory facilities should be equipped to reduce the “likelihood” of pathogenic microorganism escape using microbial safety cabinets, fume hoods, negative pressure laboratories, special traps in drains and vacuum lines.

4. The use of microorganisms that occupy special ecological niches such as hot springs and salt water should be encouraged. If such organisms escape, they will not be able to survive.

5. The use of non-conjugating plasmids as plasmid cloning vectors is recommended as such plasmids cannot promote their own transfer by conjugation.

Risks of genetic engineering

Recombinant DNA research has potential risks. Genetic engineering could create dangerous new life forms, either by accident or on purpose. A host microorganism can acquire harmful characteristics as a result of the introduction of foreign genes. If disease-carrying microorganisms formed as a result of genetic manipulation escaped the laboratories, they could cause a variety of diseases. For example, streptococcus, a bacterium that causes rheumatic fever, scarlet fever, strep throat, and kidney disease, never acquired resistance to penicillin in nature. If a plasmid carrying a gene for penicillin resistance is introduced into the streptococcus, it will confer penicillin resistance on the bacterium. Penicillin will now become ineffective against the resistant organism.

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