Genetics and Evolution

What is genetic engineering?

Genetic engineering, also known popularly as molecular cloning or gene cloning, is the artificial recombination of nucleic acid molecules in the test tube, their insertion into a virus, bacterial plasmid, or other vector system, and the subsequent incorporation of the chimeric molecules into a host organism in which they are capable of continued propagation. The construction of such molecules has also been termed gene manipulation because it usually involves the production of novel genetic combinations by biochemical means.

Genetic engineering techniques include cell fusion and the use of recombinant DNA (RNA) or gene-splicing. In cell fusion, the tough outer membranes of sperm and egg cells are stripped off by enzymes, and then the fragile cells are mixed and combined with the aid of chemicals or viruses. The result may be the creation of a new life form from two species. Recombinant DNA techniques transfer a specific genetic activity from one organism to the next through the use of bacterial plasmids (small circular pieces of DNA lying outside the main bacterial chromosome) and enzymes, such as restriction endonucleases (which cut the DNA strands); reverse transcriptase (which makes a DNA strand from an RNA strand); DNA ligase (which joins DNA strands together); and tag polymerase (which can make a double-stranded DNA molecule from a single stranded “primer” molecule).

The process begins with the isolation of suitable DNA strands and fragmenting them. After these fragments are combined with vectors, they are carried into bacterial cells where the DNA fragments are “spliced” on to plasmid DNA that has been opened up. These hybrid plasmids are now mixed with host cells to form transformed cells. Since only some of the transformed cells will exhibit the desired characteristic or gene activity, the transformed cells are separated and grown individually in cultures. This methodology has been successful in producing large quantities of hormones (such as insulin) for the biotechnology industry. However, it is more difficult to transform animal and plant cells. Yet the technique exists to make plants resistant to diseases and to make animals grow larger. Because genetic engineering interferes with the processes of heredity and can alter the genetic structure of our own species, there is much concern over the ethical ramifications of such power, as well as the possible health and ecological consequences of the creation of these bacterial forms. Some applications of genetic engineering in the various fields are listed below:

Agriculture—Crops having larger yields, disease- and drought-resistancy; bacterial sprays to prevent crop damage from freezing temperatures; and livestock improvement through changes in animal traits.

Industry—Use of bacteria to convert old newspaper and wood chips into sugar; oil- and toxin-absorbing bacteria for oil spill or toxic waste cleanups; and yeasts to accelerate wine fermentation.

Medicine—Alteration of human genes to eliminate disease (experimental stage); faster and more economical production of vital human substances to alleviate deficiency and disease symptoms (but not to cure them) such as insulin, interferon (cancer therapy), vitamins, human growth hormone ADA, antibodies, vaccines, and antibiotics.

Research—Modification of gene structure in medical research, especially cancer research.

Food Processing—Rennin (enzyme) in cheese aging.


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