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What Is Genetic Engineering And How Does It Work?

Genetic engineering falls within the ambit of the biological sciences. It encompasses a set of techniques and technologies which are designed to manipulate DNA or the genetic makeup of cells.

The Basics of Genetic Engineering

In basic terms, genetic engineering is the direct manipulation of DNA in order to alter the characteristics of an organism in a specific and intended manner. Also sometimes referred to as genetic modification, genetic engineering is a process by which an organism’s genome is altered by changing, inserting, or deleting particular pieces of DNA.  

When genetic engineering has caused the genetic makeup of an organism to be altered, that organism is henceforth referred to as a genetically modified organism or GMO.

Why is genetic engineering carried out? This set of technologies is used to change or induce specific characteristics and behaviors in an organism.

The DNA which is altered may:

  • Come from another individual who possesses the desired characteristic
  • Be artificially created or produced
  • Come from a different species of organism entirely

How Does Genetic Engineering Work?

Genetic engineering is a fairly new branch of biological sciences which is concerned with the modification of the structure of genes. For this reason, there is a considerable amount of controversy surrounding it and its applications may be morally ambiguous.

Any modification of genes and understanding genetics makes reference to DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. This molecule contains all of our genetic codes for the inheritance of various characteristics, functions, and traits. Chromosomes (which DNA exists within) are made of genes that hold all of the codes for the production of proteins. By altering or modifying individual genes, genetic engineering allows for specific abilities or characteristics to be replicated in other organisms.

In essence, the process of genetic engineering is as follows: enzymes are used to cut pieces of DNA (genes) from one organism and the removed genes are then joined into gaps in the DNA of another organism.

This gives the organism, which has received the gene the ability to express the trait encoded by that gene. The organism now possesses genetic information for one or more characteristics from the original organism. Once in possession of these new abilities, the organism has been genetically modified.

What are the applications of Genetic Engineering?

Genetic engineering has a wide variety of applications and uses. Essentially, it is used by scientists in order to enhance or modify the functions or characteristics of a specific organism.

Some of its applications to date include:

  • Gene transfer – Using microorganisms as vectors or carriers. This is how insulin was created.  
  • Gene Therapy – Using normal or genetically altered genes to replace defective genes which may be involved in causing genetic disorders. At present, genetic engineering technologies are being used in order to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.
  • Agriculture – Plants can be created which have higher nutritional contents and values, and which are more tolerant to environmental threats and herbicides.
  • Cloning – One of the most controversial applications of genetic engineering. A sheep, Dolly, was successfully cloned in 1996.
  • Research – Scientists use these techniques to understand the function of certain genes.
  • Medicine – Synthetic insulin is a prime example of how genetic engineering can be used in this field. Genetic engineering has also been used to create vaccines and immune-therapeutic drugs.

  What are the Benefits of Genetic Engineering?

Some of the benefits of genetic engineering include:

  • Crops can now be produced faster and in greater quantities to feed growing populations
  • Crops are made to be resistant to diseases
  • Crops can now be grown in areas previously thought to be unsuitable for agriculture – This is done by making them more resistant to droughts, certain types of soil, and tweaking their sunlight requirements and their rate of photosynthesis
  • Reducing the need for strong pesticides and chemical fertilizers thereby reducing environmental impact and harm
  • Could be used to eradicate world hunger by increasing yields
  • Eliminate or reduce human diseases
  • Could potentially increase human lifespans 

Drawbacks of Genetic Engineering

Since this is such an experimental field, its applications can be morally ambiguous and may:

  • Disrupt biodiversity in nature
  • Have irrevocable and irreversible effects and their consequences
  • Create health risks
  • Disrupt the balance of nature

Genetic engineering involves the modification of genes. It is a field with far-reaching potential and its technologies are used in a wide variety of fields.