Genetic engineering is one of the most important developments in human history. Controversy and ethical concerns aside, the ability to manipulate the very genetic code of organisms is a very powerful tool.
With modern techniques like CRISPR, genetic engineering could, very well, allow us to cure any diseases in the future, or produce crops with yields hitherto only ever dreamed of. We may even be able to bring back long-extinct animals.
Let's just make sure we take note of the warnings of Michael Crichton from his "Jurassic Park" novels.
What are some interesting facts about genetic engineering, and why it is important?
So, without further ado, here are some interesting facts about genetic engineering and why it is important. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. The first genetically modified animal was created in 1973
GMO HISTORY:— Yes to GMOs (@GmosYes) February 12, 2020
"An enormous breakthrough in GMO technology came in 1973, when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen worked together to engineer the first successful genetically engineered (GE) organism." It was a mouse! pic.twitter.com/ANdFbzm6RH
Mice became the first animal to be genetically modified around the same time.
Insulin-producing GMO bacteria became a thing in 1982 and were quickly commercialized. GMO plants for food have actually been around since 1994, including many varieties of edible crops.
2. Genetically engineered things are actually all around us
Genetic engineering techniques are used widely today for research, agriculture, industrial biotechnology, and medicine. For example, genetically modified enzymes used in laundry detergent or medicine like insulin and human growth hormone can now be readily created in GMO cells.
Genetic engineering is, in effect, all around us today.
3. Some of the most common genetic engineering test subjects are mice and zebrafish
Some of the most common animal test subjects for genetic engineering are mice and zebrafish. Both have relatively short lifespans, and so any modifications to their DNA can be assessed very quickly in the growing animal.
Zebrafish are particularly useful as their larval phase is, more or less, completely translucent. This allows researchers to easily see what's going on inside the infant fish as a result of genetic modifications made.
4. Genetic modification is something of an ethical dilemma
Very interesting @pewresearch survey on the ethics of genetic engineering - generally if there is human benefit people support it but also broad opposition for religious and other reasonshttps://t.co/uXnTL69JRf pic.twitter.com/DU1ST8hWdM— Ross Dawson (@rossdawson) August 19, 2018
While the practical benefits of genetic engineering are readily demonstratable, there are some ethical and ecological concerns around them. For example, genetic modification of human embryos is, rightfully, considered unethical.
With regards to ecology, it has been argued that GM organisms, if ever released into nature, could readily outcompete wild organisms. This could be devastating for natural habitats and species.
5. GM researchers can build completely synthetic genomes
“They have taken the field of synthetic genomics to a new level, not only successfully building the largest ever synthetic genome to date, but also making the most coding changes to a genome so far.” https://t.co/RFTeIte8F2— The Scientist (@TheScientistLLC) May 20, 2019
Genetic engineering has come a long way since the 1970s. Today, researchers can actually build a long base cheaply, and accurately on a large scale.
This allows GM researchers to be able to conduct experiments on genomes that don't actually exist in nature. Called synthetic genomics, this field of study is really finding its stride.
Some companies, like Synthetic Genomics, have even been founded to study potential commercialization opportunities from custom designed genomes.
6. GM scientists can even build complete chromosomes in the lab
Further to the above, genetic engineers can, today, create entirely synthetic chromosomes in the lab. For example, the first synthetic chromosome for yeast was created only a few years ago.
This is considered a very big deal in the field of synthetic biology.
7. Genetic engineering can be used on any kind of organism
Historically, short remissions were seen in cancer patients with viral infections. Now, genetic engineering is making oncolytic virus treatments a reality. https://t.co/jHignTRWNx pic.twitter.com/WIb34dXnBd— Kathleen D. Hoffman (@drkdhoffman) April 12, 2020
As we have seen, a wide swathe of organisms can be altered using genetic engineering. This can range from anything from a lowly virus to an entire sheep.
8. Genetically modified animals are helping with some very serious human diseases and disorders
Genetic engineering could turn Huntington's Disease, cystic fibrosis, and thousands of other diseases into memories.— Freethink (@freethinkmedia) December 6, 2019
It also evokes fears of eugenics and inequality.
Molecular biologist @daisyrobinton on how we should proceed: https://t.co/XxMeZKqPwN
(Photo by Heather McGrath)
As we have already touched on, genetic engineering is being used to treat some very serious human diseases and disorders like diabetes with insulin. But it is also being put to work providing therapeutic solutions for other serious health issues like Alzheimer's and cystic fibrosis.
9. Genetic engineering is a very sophisticated form of cut and paste
While the technical aspects of genetic engineering are pretty sophisticated, the principle behind it is relatively easy to understand. Whenever genetic engineers manipulate an organism's genome as they are effectively doing is either deleting base pairs, deleting entire DNA regions, or introducing new genes.
Any added genetic material can either be entirely synthetic, taken from another organism, or copied from the same organism. But, of course, actually doing that is far from simple.
10. Genetic engineering, as a term, used to be broader in its definition
While today, genetic engineering really only applies to recombinant DNA techniques, it used to mean something a little different. Prior to the advent of these techniques, this term used to encompass less sophisticated things like artificial selection, artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization, and cloning.
11. Recombinant DNA techniques were first developed in the late 1960s
The Biozentrum just celebrated the 90th birthday of Werner Arber, an alumnus of Geneva University, who discovered in the 1960s the molecular scissors named restriction enzymes, a discovery that launched molecular biology era. Arber Nathans & Smith received the Nobel Prize in 1978 pic.twitter.com/GS5H9RLBuh— GALLIOT (@BrigitteGalliot) August 30, 2019
Modern genetic engineering all kicked off back in the late 1960s. This was largely thanks to the discovery of restriction enzymes in 1968 by Swiss microbiologist Werner Arber.
So-called type II restriction enzymes were discovered shortly after by the American microbiologist Hamilton O. Smith.
The former was found to be able to clear DNA at random locations, while the latter could be used to target a specific site.