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. 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, one year before DNA's role in heredity was confirmed in 1952 by Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase and two years before James Watson and Francis Crick showed that DNA has a double-helix structure.
The DNA-protein system is an ingeniously simple and extremely powerful solution for creating all kinds of biological properties and structures. Just by varying the sequence of code words in the DNA, innumerable variations of proteins with very disparate properties can be obtained, sufficient to generate the enormous variety of biological life.
There are a number of ways through which genetic engineering is accomplished. Essentially, the process has five main steps.
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, Werner Arber 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.
Molecular biologists have discovered many enzymes which change the structure of DNA in living organisms. Some of these enzymes can cut and join strands of DNA. Using such enzymes, scientists learned to cut specific genes from DNA and to build customized DNA using these genes. They also learned about vectors, strands of DNA such as viruses, which can infect a cell and insert themselves into its DNA.
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.
A new type of slowly growing artform is being established via gene engineering and manipulation. Bioart, an artistic form, uses gene engineering to create new art forms that both educate the public about genetics and create living artforms.
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.
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 behavior. It may potentially be used in creating more dramatic changes in humans. There are many unresolved ethical issues and concerns surrounding this technology, and it remains a controversial topic.
Genetic engineering can enable the transport of genes between unrelated (transgenesis) or related (cisgenesis) organisms that would otherwise be unable to occur naturally, due to differences in anatomy or the incorrespondence between the DNA structures. This form of genetic engineering can produce unpredictable results to the genome of the organisms, and can be related to those mutation processes.
The modification of the DNA structures of agricultural crops can increase the growth rates and even resistance to different diseases caused by pathogens and parasites. This is extremely beneficial as it can greatly increase the production of food sources with the usage of fewer resources that would be required to host the world's growing populations. These modified crops would also reduce the usage of chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides, and therefore decrease the severity and frequency of the damages produced by these chemical pollution. Domesticated animals can undergo the same mechanism. Genetic engineering can also increase the genetic diversity of species populations, especially those that are classified as being endangered. Increase in genetic diversity would enabled these organisms to evolve more efficiently that would allow better adaptation to the ecosystems they inhabit. It would also reduce the vulnerability of certain diseases produced by pathogens, as well as decrease the risk of inbreeding that would produce infertile youths. Genetic engineering can be performed to increase to the efficiency of the ecosystem services provided by the other organisms. For example, the modification of a tree's genes could perhaps increase the root systems of these organisms reduce the damage produced by flood phenomena through flood mitigation.