What is Genetic Engineering? All living organisms are made up of cells at the basic level. Cells are the building blocks of life. Every cell contains DNA which, in simplest terms, is a molecule that consists of codes or instructions which determine the fundamental characteristics of living things. From bacteria to humans, it is the DNA that makes us who or what we are.
What is DNA?
Deoxyribonucleic acid, more commonly known as DNA, is a complex molecule that contains all of the information necessary to build and maintain an organism. In short, DNA is a long molecule that contains each person’s unique genetic code.
What is GENE?
All living things have DNA within their cells. DNA exists in the form of a long double helix, like a spiral ladder. A segment of DNA is what we call a ‘gene’. We can consider genes as a small part of the entire DNA sequence.
DNA and genes are not just responsible for our characteristics but also for passing down certain traits from parents to offspring. Every species has the same genes which are why members of a species share the same physical and physiological properties.
There are slight variations in the genes which lead to some differences among individual members of a species but the basic genetic structures remain the same.
To clarify this with an example, we can just look at our own human species. All humans share the same physiology, but every individual has their own unique look.
Different Genetics and Mutation
As humans delved into the study of genetics, they realized that genes can sometimes undergo permanent changes which are called ‘mutation’.
The occurrence and effects of the mutation are random. But if the mutation proved to be advantageous for the survival of the organism. It was more likely to be passed on to the next generation, and the next and so on.
Over time, the mutation would become a part of the organism’s DNA, making it somewhat different and better than its ancestors. This process is what we call ‘evolution’.
Though it was fascinating for humans to learn about mutation and evolution of genes. It also seemed to imply that only nature has the ability to modify the genetic structure of living beings.
Eventually, our curiosity made us wonder one thing – will humans be able to control and modify genes someday? And after many years of study and research, we figured out that we can. That is how the concept of genetic engineering came into existence.
What is Genetic Engineering?
What is Genetic engineering? Genetic engineering is the direct modification of genes. It’s the process of removing or inserting genes in the DNA sequence of an organism, which will eventually lead to certain changes in its characteristics.
The idea came to life in the 1970s, when scientists experimented with the insertion of external DNA into bacteria and viruses.
Humans had been modifying genes in other species even before that, but it was done mainly by breeding (such as cross/selective breeding) or by causing random mutations with the help of external agents.
In 1974, Rudolf Jaenisch successfully modified the genes of mice, making them the world’s first genetically modified animals. Over the years, many successful experiments were conducted in this field but the process was usually very difficult and expensive.
Discovering a cheap and efficient way to edit genes was still challenging. But all that changed in 2012, when the CRISPR technology was developed.
CRISPR, an abbreviation for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a gene-editing tool that can modify genes with great precision and ease.
Let me explain what is Genetic engineering? how it works in simple words. As mentioned before, DNA exists in the form of a long, spiral strand.
Using CRISPR, a specific gene can be cut out from the DNA strand and another gene can be fixed in its place, just like performing surgery on DNA. With this tool in our hands, humans can now successfully alter genes, and control the outcome as well.
Current Applications of Genetic Engineering
Even though we now possess the technology to edit genes, scientists are still very cautious of implementing it on humans.
Research is being conducted on using gene editing to help humans fight diseases better and removing defective genes or hereditary diseases.
Some techniques have been developed for this, but they are not widely available to the general public yet. However, there are many other fields where genetic engineering has already found its uses.
Many plants and crops are genetically altered and are commonly known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Such crops are modified to develop some beneficial characteristics, such as longer shelf life or better nutritional value.
Insulin is genetically engineered nowadays and is called humulin. Many other drugs and chemicals are also manufactured by means of genetic engineering. And as research progresses in this field, many more benefits are yet to be discovered.
The Unpredictable Future of Genetic Engineering
Like any other technology, genetic engineering also has its pros and cons. If we are talking about what is Genetic engineering? And its benefits, the first thing that comes to mind is its effect on health and medicine.
Benefits of Genetic Engineering
It can be used to develop immunity against some of the worst diseases that plague mankind, such as cancer and AIDS. Genes can be edited to make healthier humans with much higher life expectancy. Then these benefits can also be passed on to our children and the generation thereafter.
Apart from humans, this technology can be used to produce better products such as food and medicines, which is already happening at present.
Negative Effects of Genetic Engineering
The negative effects and repercussions of possessing such technology are also quite prominent. First of all, we are faced with an ethical dilemma. Is it acceptable for humans to edit genes? Are we going against nature by doing so? There are also concerns regarding the side effects of editing genes.
We still cannot control and predict random mutation, so in the present context, there is a possibility that altering genetic structures could cause other unwanted mutations and genetic defects.
We could end up introducing unwanted and detrimental traits into the human gene pool. A lot of people are also debating over the concept of genetically modified babies, and if it should be allowed.
Also, if we do succeed in eradicating diseases and increasing life expectancy, it might do more harm than good for the already overpopulating human race.
After looking at both the positive and negative impact of this revolutionary technology, we can only conclude that this topic remains much debatable as of now.
We can’t really decide if the pros outweigh the cons or vice versa. So in all sense, the future of genetic engineering is completely unpredictable. It all depends upon how we further proceed with its research and application.
But until then, we all should be aware of this technology and voice our opinions, as it is something that could significantly the course of human evolution. Whether it will lead to the benefit of mankind or not is something only time can tell.