Genetic Engineering: A boon or a bane
Genetic engineering is the art and science of changing genetic make-up of some of the living organisms to derive intended benefits to the human kind and human society as a whole. It is the laboratory technique used by scientists to change the DNA of living organisms. Genetic engineering, genetic modification (GM) and gene splicing are terms for the process of manipulating genes, usually beyond the organism's natural reproductive process and behaviour. DNA is the blueprint for the individuality of a plant or an animal. The organism relies upon the information stored in its DNA for the management of every biochemical process. The life, growth and unique features of the organism depend on its DNA because it carries and stores messages required for all these functions. The segments of DNA which have been associated with specific features or functions of an organism are called genes.
Genetic Engineering involves the isolation, manipulation and reintroduction of DNA into cells or model organisms, usually to express a protein. The aim is to introduce new characteristics or attributes physiologically or physically, such as making a crop resistant to a herbicide, introducing a novel trait, or producing a new protein or enzyme, along with altering the organism to produce more of certain traits. Some of the examples include the production of human insulin through the use of modified bacteria, the production of erythropoietin in Chinese Hamster Ovary cells, and the production of new types of experimental mice such as the OncoMouse (cancer mouse) for research, through genetic redesign. The discovery of the process relates to Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Smith receiving the 1978 Nobel Prize in medicine for their isolation of restriction endonucleases, which are able to cut DNA at specific sites. Together with ligase, which can join fragments of DNA together, restriction enzymes formed the initial basis of recombinant DNA technology.
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 learnt to cut specific genes from DNA and to build customized DNA using these genes. They also learnt about vectors, strands of DNA such as viruses, which can infect a cell and insert themselves into its DNA. Genetic engineers believe that they can improve the foods we eat by doing this. One such example is, tomatoes are sensitive to frost and this shortens their growing season. Scientists identified a particular gene which enables a flounder to resist cold and used the technology of genetic engineering to insert this 'anti-freeze' gene into a tomato. This makes it possible to extend the growing season of the tomato.
It looks really exciting when we hear such things happening as human endeavour to help many of the problems we face. However, it is also alarming to note the dangers it may pose to us. The suspicion on the validity of the concept is because of some unanswered question of the science and doubt it has created into the human mind.
To some who does not approve the act of genetic engineering, this is not engineering in the conventional sense. Engineering as a term usually implies an effective total knowledge of the results of any given intervention. There is ample example of the fact that changing one's DNA sequence in an organism has systemic changes. This field is clearly demonstrating hubris by calling itself 'engineering'.
The first Genetically Engineered drug was human insulin approved by the USA's FDA in 1982. In 1986 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 genetic engineering has expanded to supply many drugs and vaccines.One of the best known applications of genetic engineering is that of the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).There are potentially momentous biotechnological applications of GM, for example oral vaccines produced naturally in fruit, at very low cost. A radical ambition of some groups is human enhancement via genetics, eventually by molecular engineering.
However, some consumers and advocacy groups urge mandatory labeling that discloses the use of genetic engineering. Others advocate more stringent testing of these products before marketing. Still others want a ban on all genetically engineered foods.
The Food and Drug Administration is confident that the genetically engineered food products in the U.S. market today are as safe as their conventionally bred counterparts, and the agency is prepared to meet the safety and regulatory challenges presented by new products as they emerge from the laboratory.
By traditional genetic modification methods, such as cross-fertilization, scientists can produce a desired trait, such as a hardier plant. But while doing so, they mix thousands of genes from several plants, requiring many attempts over many years to weed out the unwanted traits that occur. Newer methods of genetic modification, in the form of genetic engineering, are more precise and predictable--and faster. By controlling the insertion of one or two genes into a plant, scientists can give it a specific new characteristic without transferring undesirable traits.
The first generation of genetically engineered crops was developed primarily to benefit the growers. Plants were created to resist pests and diseases and to tolerate herbicides used to kill weeds. Scientists see the next generation of genetically engineered products benefiting consumers directly. They are adding nutrients to foods to help prevent diseases, reducing allergens and toxins, and making foods tastier.
Scientists are also developing new varieties of crops that can withstand harsh growing conditions. The world population continues to increase at an explosive rate, our arable land is deteriorating, fresh water is becoming scarce, and increasing environmental stresses will pose ever more serious threats to global agricultural production and food security in future years. Anything can be done to help crop plants cope with environmental stresses will also raise the quality and quantity of food for those who need it most.
One concern about genetic engineering is that scientists might unknowingly create or enhance a food allergen. But researchers are hoping that this powerful technology can be used to eliminate or reduce allergens, such as those found in peanuts, wheat and soy. Using a "gene silencing" technique, researchers were able to "knock out" a gene that makes a protein called P34, which is thought to trigger most allergic reactions to soy.
As the pace of genetic engineering is growing, plants may become miniature "factories" for pharmaceuticals through genetic engineering. Scientists are growing plants that produce antibodies to help fight cancer, heart disease and tooth decay. And researchers are experimenting with growing fruits and vegetables that contain vaccines for measles, hepatitis B, Norwalk virus, diarrhea, cholera and more.
Genetically engineered plants are regulated by three government agencies: the FDA, the USDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The FDA ensures that foods made from these plants are safe for humans and animals to eat; the USDA makes sure the plants are safe to grow, and the EPA ensures that pesticides introduced into the plants are safe for human and animal consumption and for the environment.
In July 2003, the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopted international guidelines for biotech food safety that are consistent with the FDA's approach. Codex, an entity established by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is the highest international body on food standards.
On the issue of labeling, the FDA has no information that the use of biotechnology creates a class of food that is different in quality, safety or any other attribute from food developed using conventional breeding techniques. FDA is in opinion that genetic engineering techniques is not required on the label, just as identification of conventional breeding techniques is not required--for example, "hybrid wheat" can just be called "wheat."
In recent times, genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms and crops have become the topic of serious debate between advocacy groups and the scientists. There is a general perception that the advocacy groups are backed by plant protection chemical companies and that’s how, they are against the emerging technology of genetic engineering. Most of the arguments these advocacy group suggests does not have any scientific basis, yet some of the doubts and threats would haunt novice people who do not know much about the science behind the whole affair. While the advocacy group still wants to rely on the principle of natural selection of evolution, modern scientists have taken the battle for artificial selection through the mode of genetic engineering. As long as the genetic engineering is safe and beneficial to humans, let it be a boon and not a bane.