Genetic Engineering

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Genetic engineering, recombinant DNA technology, genetic modification/manipulation (GM) and gene splicing are terms that apply to the direct manipulation of an organism's genes.[1] Genetic engineering is different from traditional breeding, where the organism's genes are manipulated indirectly. Genetic engineering uses the techniques of molecular cloning and transformation to alter the structure and characteristics of genes directly. Genetic engineering techniques have found some successes in numerous applications. Some examples are in improving crop technology, the manufacture of synthetic human insulin through the use of modified bacteria, the manufacture of erythropoietin in hamster ovary cells, and the production of new types of experimental mice such as the oncomouse (cancer mouse) for research.

The term "genetic engineering" was coined in Jack Williamson's science fiction novel Dragon's Island, published in 1951, [2] two years before James Watson and Francis Crick showed that DNA could be the medium of transmission of genetic information.

For lessons on the topic of Genetic Engineering, follow this link.


There are a number of ways through which genetic engineering is accomplished. Essentially, the process has five main steps Isolation of the genes of interest

  • Insertion of the genes into a transfer vector
  • Transfer of the vector to the organism to be modified
  • Transformation of the cells of the organism
  • Selection of the genetically modified organism (GMO) from those that have not been successfully modified

Isolation is achieved by identifying the gene of interest that the scientist wishes to insert into the organism, usually using existing knowledge of the various functions of genes. DNA information can be obtained from cDNA or gDNA libraries, and amplified using PCR techniques. If necessary, i.e. for insertion of eukaryotic genomic DNA into prokaryotes, further modification may be carried out such as removal of introns or ligating prokaryotic promoters. Insertion of a gene into a vector such as a plasmid can be done once the gene of interest is isolated. Other vectors can also be used, such as viral vectors, bacterial conjugation, liposomes, or even direct insertion using a gene gun. Restriction enzymes and ligases are of great use in this crucial step if it is being inserted into prokaryotic or viral vectors. Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Smith received the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their isolation of restriction endonucleases. Once the vector is obtained, it can be used to transform the target organism. Depending on the vector used, it can be complex or simple. For example, using raw DNA with gene guns is a fairly straightforward process but with low success rates, where the DNA is coated with molecules such as gold and fired directly into a cell. Other more complex methods, such as bacterial transformation or using viruses as vectors have higher success rates. After transformation, the GMO can be selected from those that have failed to take up the vector in various ways. One method is screening with DNA probes that can stick to the gene of interest that was supposed to have been transplanted. Another is to package genes conferring resistance to certain chemicals such as antibiotics or herbicides into the vector. This chemical is then applied ensuring that only those cells that have taken up the vector will survive.


The first genetically engineered medicine was synthetic human insulin, approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 1982. Another early application of genetic engineering was to create human growth hormone as replacement for a compound that was previously extracted from human cadavers. In 1987 the FDA approved the first genetically engineered vaccine for humans, for hepatitis B. Since these early uses of the technology in medicine, the use of GM has gradually expanded to supply a number of other drugs and vaccines. One of the best-known applications of genetic engineering is the creation of GMOs for food use (genetically modified foods); such foods resist insect pests, bacterial or fungal infection, resist herbicides to improve yield, have longer freshness than otherwise, or have superior nutritional value. In materials science, a genetically modified virus has been used to construct a more environmentally friendly lithium-ion battery.[3][4]

Genetic engineering and research

Although there has been a 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 animals and plants, has 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.

  • Loss of function experiments, such as in a gene knockout experiment, in which an organism is engineered to lack the activity of one or more genes. This allows the experimenter to analyze the defects caused by this mutation, and can be considerably useful in unearthing the function of a gene. It is used especially frequently in developmental biology. A knockout experiment involves the creation and manipulation of a DNA construct in vitro, which, in a simple knockout, consists of a copy of the desired gene, which has been slightly altered such as to cripple its function. The construct is then taken up by embryonic stem cells, wherein the engineered copy of the gene replaces the organism's own gene. These stem cells are injected into blastocysts, which are implanted into surrogate mothers. Another method, useful in organisms such as Drosophila (fruitfly), is to induce mutations in a large population and then screen the progeny for the desired mutation. A similar process can be used in both plants and prokaryotes.
  • Gain of function experiments, the logical counterpart of knockouts. These are sometimes performed in conjunction with knockout experiments to more finely establish the function of the desired gene. The process is much the same as that in knockout engineering, except that the construct is designed to increase the function of the gene, usually by providing extra copies of the gene or inducing synthesis of the protein more frequently.
  • Tracking experiments, which seek to gain information about the localization and interaction of the desired protein. One way to do this is to replace the wild-type gene with a 'fusion' gene, which is a juxtaposition of the wild-type gene with a reporting element such as Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) that will allow easy visualization of the products of the genetic modification. While this is a useful technique, the manipulation can destroy the function of the gene, creating secondary effects and possibly calling into question the results of the experiment. More sophisticated techniques are now in development that can track protein products without mitigating their function, such as the addition of small sequences that will serve as binding motifs to monoclonal antibodies.
  • Expression studies aim to discover where and when specific proteins are produced. In these experiments, the DNA sequence before the DNA that codes for a protein, known as a gene's promoter, is reintroduced into an organism with the protein coding region replaced by a reporter gene such as GFP or an enzyme that catalyzes the production of a dye. Thus the time and place where a particular protein is produced can be observed. Expression studies can be taken a step further by altering the promoter to find which pieces are crucial for the proper expression of the gene and are actually bound by transcription factor proteins; this process is known as promoter bashing.

Human genetic engineering

Human genetic engineering can be used to treat genetic disease, but there is a difference between treating the disease in an individual and changing the genome that gets passed down to that person's descendants (germ-line genetic engineering). Human genetic engineering has the potential to change human beings' appearance, adaptability, intelligence, character, and behaviour. It may potentially be used in creating more dramatic changes in humans.[citation needed] There are many unresolved ethical issues and concerns surrounding this technology, and it remains a controversial topic.


Genetic engineering can either transfer genes between organisms that are unrelated (transgenesis) and could therefore not occur naturally or between organisms that are related (cisgenesis) and so could occur naturally.


  1. "Genetic engineering - Definitions from". Retrieved 2008-04-26.
  2. Sterling, Bruce (April 5, 2009), "Science fiction neologisms that passed into public use", WIRED
  3. New virus-built battery could power cars, electronic devices
  4. Hidden Ingredient In New, Greener Battery: A Virus

Further reading

  • British Medical Association (1999). The Impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food and Health. BMJ Books. ISBN 0-7279-1431-6.
  • Donnellan, Craig (2004). Genetic Modification (Issues). Independence Educational Publishers. ISBN 1-86168-288-3.
  • Morgan, Sally (2003). Superfoods: Genetic Modification of Foods (Science at the Edge). Heinemann. ISBN 1-4034-4123-5.
  • Smiley, Sophie (2005). Genetic Modification: Study Guide (Exploring the Issues). Independence Educational Publishers. ISBN 1-86168-307-3.
  • Zaid, A; H.G. Hughes, E. Porceddu, F. Nicholas (2001). Glossary of Biotechnology for Food and Agriculture - A Revised and Augmented Edition of the Glossary of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering. Available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic. Rome, Italy: FAO. ISBN 92-5-104683-2.