Genetic Engineering, History And Future

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Genetic Engineering, History And Future

Science is a creature that continues to evolve at a much higher rate than the beings that
gave it birth. The transformation time from tree-shrew, to ape, to human far exceeds the time
from analytical engine, to calculator, to computer. But science, in the past, has always remained
distant. It has allowed for advances in production, transportation, and even entertainment, but
never in history will science be able to so deeply affect our lives as genetic engineering will
undoubtedly do. With the birth of this new technology, scientific extremists and anti-technologists
have risen in arms to block its budding future. Spreading fear by misinterpretation
of facts, they promote their hidden agendas in the halls of the United States congress. Genetic
engineering is a safe and powerful tool that will yield unprecedented results, specifically in the
field of medicine. It will usher in a world where gene defects, bacterial disease, and even aging
are a thing of the past. By understanding genetic engineering and its history, discovering its
possibilities, and answering the moral and safety questions it brings forth, the blanket of fear
covering this remarkable technical miracle can be lifted.

The first step to understanding genetic engineering, and embracing its possibilities for
society, is to obtain a rough knowledge base of its history and method. The basis for altering the
evolutionary process is dependant on the understanding of how individuals pass on
characteristics to their offspring. Genetics achieved its first foothold on the secrets of nature's
evolutionary process when an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel developed the first "laws of
heredity." Using these laws, scientists studied the characteristics of organisms for most of the
next one hundred years following Mendel's discovery. These early studies concluded that each
organism has two sets of character determinants, or genes (Stableford 16). For instance, in
regards to eye color, a child could receive one set of genes from his father that were encoded one
blue, and the other brown. The same child could also receive two brown genes from his mother.
The conclusion for this inheritance would be the child has a three in four chance of having
brown eyes, and a one in three chance of having blue eyes (Stableford 16).

Genes are transmitted through chromosomes which reside in the nucleus of every living
organism's cells. Each chromosome is made up of fine strands of deoxyribonucleic acids, or
DNA. The information carried on the DNA determines the cells function within the organism.
Sex cells are the only cells that contain a complete DNA map of the organism, therefore, "the
structure of a DNA molecule or combination of DNA molecules determines the shape, form, and
function of the [organism's] offspring " (Lewin 1). DNA discovery is attributed to the research
of three scientists, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and James Dewey Watson in 1951. They
were all later accredited with the Nobel Price in physiology and medicine in 1962 (Lewin 1).

"The new science of genetic engineering aims to take a dramatic short cut in the slow
process of evolution" (Stableford 25). In essence, scientists aim to remove one gene from an
organism's DNA, and place it into the DNA of another organism. This would create a new DNA
strand, full of new encoded instructions; a strand that would have taken Mother Nature millions
of years of natural selection to develop. Isolating and removing a desired gene from a DNA
strand involves many different tools. DNA can be broken up by exposing it to ultra-high-frequency
sound waves, but this is an extremely inaccurate way of isolating a desirable DNA section
(Stableford 26). A more accurate way of DNA splicing is the use of "restriction
enzymes, which are produced by various species of bacteria" (Clarke 1). The restriction
enzymes cut the DNA strand at a particular location called a nucleotide base, which makes up a
DNA molecule. Now that the desired portion of the DNA is cut out, it can be joined to another
strand of DNA by using enzymes called ligases. The final important step in the creation of a
new DNA strand is giving it the ability to self-replicate. This can be accomplished by using
special pieces of DNA, called vectors, that permit the generation of multiple copies of a total
DNA strand and fusing it to the newly created DNA structure. Another newly developed
method, called polymerase chain reaction, allows for faster replication of DNA strands and does
not require the use of vectors (Clarke 1).

The possibilities of genetic engineering are endless. Once the power to control the
instructions, given to a single cell, are mastered anything can be accomplished. For example,
insulin can be created and grown in large quantities by using an inexpensive gene manipulation
method of growing a certain bacteria. This supply of insulin is also not dependant on the supply
of pancreatic tissue from animals. Recombinant factor VIII, the blood clotting agent missing in
people suffering from hemophilia, can also be created by genetic engineering. Virtually all
people who were treated with factor VIII before 1985 acquired HIV, and later AIDS. Being
completely pure, the bioengineered version of factor VIII eliminates any possibility of viral
infection. Other uses of genetic engineering include creating disease resistant crops, formulating
milk from cows already containing pharmaceutical compounds, generating vaccines, and
altering livestock traits (Clarke 1). In the not so distant future, genetic engineering will become
a principal player in fighting genetic, bacterial, and viral disease, along with controlling aging,
and providing replaceable parts for humans.

Medicine has seen many new innovations in its history. The discovery of anesthetics
permitted the birth of modern surgery, while the production of antibiotics in the 1920s
minimized the threat from diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and cholera. The creation
of serums which build up the bodies immune system to specific infections, before being laid low
with them, has also enhanced modern medicine greatly (Stableford 59). All of these discoveries,
however, will fall under the broad shadow of genetic engineering when it reaches its apex in the
medical community.

Many people suffer from genetic diseases ranging from thousands of types of cancers, to
blood, liver, and lung disorders. Amazingly, all of these will be able to be treated by genetic
engineering, specifically, gene therapy. The basis of gene therapy is to supply a functional gene
to cells lacking that particular function, thus correcting the genetic disorder or disease. There
are two main categories of gene therapy: germ line therapy, or altering of sperm and egg cells,
and somatic cell therapy, which is much like an organ transplant. Germ line therapy results in a
permanent change for the entire organism, and its future offspring. Unfortunately, germ line
therapy, is not readily in use on humans for ethical reasons. However, this genetic method
could, in the future, solve many genetic birth defects such as downs syndrome. Somatic cell
therapy deals with the direct treatment of living tissues. Scientists, in a lab, inject the tissues
with the correct, functioning gene and then re-administer them to the patient, correcting the
problem (Clarke 1).

Along with altering the cells of living tissues, genetic engineering has also proven
extremely helpful in the alteration of bacterial genes. "Transforming bacterial cells is easier
than transforming the cells of complex organisms" (Stableford 34). Two reasons are evident for
this ease of manipulation: DNA enters, and functions easily in bacteria, and the transformed
bacteria cells can be easily selected out from the untransformed ones. Bacterial bioengineering
has many uses in our society, it can produce synthetic insulins, a growth hormone for the
treatment of dwarfism and interferons for treatment of cancers and viral diseases (Stableford
34).

Throughout the centuries disease has plagued the world, forcing everyone to take part in a
virtual "lottery with the agents of death" (Stableford 59). Whether viral or bacterial in nature,
such disease are currently combated with the application of vaccines and antibiotics. These
treatments, however, contain many unsolved problems. The difficulty with applying antibiotics
to destroy bacteria is that natural selection allows for the mutation of bacteria cells, sometimes
resulting in mutant bacterium which is resistant to a particular antibiotic. This now
indestructible bacterial pestilence wages havoc on the human body. Genetic engineering is
conquering this medical dilemma by utilizing diseases that target bacterial organisms. these
diseases are viruses, named bacteriophages, "which can be produced to attack specific disease-causing
bacteria" (Stableford 61). Much success has already been obtained by treating animals
with a "phage" designed to attack the E. coli bacteria (Stableford 60).
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