During the latter stage stages of the 20th century, man harnessed the power of the atom, and not long after, soon realised the power of genes. Genetic engineering is going to become a very mainstream part of our lives sooner or later, because there are so many possibilities advantages (and disadvantages) involved. Here are just some of the advantages :
- Disease could be prevented by detecting people/plants/animals that are genetically prone to certain hereditary diseases, and preparing for the inevitable. Also, infectious diseases can be treated by implanting genes that code for antiviral proteins specific to each antigen.
- Animals and plants can be 'tailor made' to show desirable characteristics. Genes could also be manipulated in trees for example, to absorb more CO2 and reduce the threat of global warming.
- Genetic Engineering could increase genetic diversity, and produce more variant alleles which could also be crossed over and implanted into other species. It is possible to alter the genetics of wheat plants to grow insulin for example.
Of course there are two sides to the coin, here are some possible eventualities and disadvantages.
- Nature is an extremely complex inter-related chain consisting of many species linked in the food chain. Some scientists believe that introducing genetically modified genes may have an irreversible effect with consequences yet unknown.
- Genetic engineering borderlines on many moral issues, particularly involving religion, which questions whether man has the right to manipulate the laws and course of nature.
Genetic engineering may be one of the greatest breakthroughs in recent history alongside the discovery of the atom and space flight, however, with the above eventualities and facts above in hand, governments have produced legislation to control what sort of experiments are done involving genetic engineering. In the UK there are strict laws prohibiting any experiments involving the cloning of humans. However, over the years here are some of the experimental 'breakthroughs' made possible by genetic engineering.
- At the Roslin Institute in Scotland, scientists successfully cloned an exact copy of a sheep, named 'Dolly'. This was the first successful cloning of an animal, and most likely the first occurrence of two organisms being genetically identical. Note : Recently the sheep's health has deteriorated detrimentally
- Scientists successfully manipulated the genetic sequence of a rat to grow a human ear on its back. (Unusual, but for the purpose of reproducing human organs for medical purposes)
- Most controversially, and maybe due to more liberal laws, an American scientist is currently conducting tests to clone himself.
Genetic engineering has been impossible until recent times due to the complex and microscopic nature of DNA and its component nucleotides. Through progressive studies, more and more in this area is being made possible, with the above examples only showing some of the potential that genetic engineering shows.
For us to understand chromosomes and DNA more clearly, they can be mapped for future reference. More simplistic organisms such as fruit fly (Drosophila) have been chromosome mapped due to their simplistic nature meaning they will require less genes to operate. At present, a task named the Human Genome Project is mapping the human genome, and should be completed in the next ten years.
The process of genetic engineering involves splicing an area of a chromosome, a gene, that controls a certain characteristic of the body. The enzyme endonuclease is used to split a DNA sequence and split the gene from the rest of the chromosome. For example, this gene may be programmed to produce an antiviral protein. This gene is removed and can be placed into another organism. For example, it can be placed into a bacteria, where it is sealed into the DNA chain using ligase. When the chromosome is once again sealed, the bacteria is now effectively re-programmed to replicate this new antiviral protein. The bacteria can continue to live a healthy life, though genetic engineering and human intervention has actively manipulated what the bacteria actually is. No doubt there are advantages and disadvantages, and this whole subject area will become more prominent over time.
The next page returns the more natural circumstances of genetic diversity.