Genetic engineering

Though the word “biotechnology” sounds very modern, what it describes has been with us for centuries–if you define it, as one science encyclopedia does, as “using biological organisms, systems or processes to make or modify products.”

In other words, the first time somebody discovered the wondrous change wrought in grape juice by fermentation, or an excited baker got a little yeast in her dough and saw it swell up (think how brave whoever ate it must have been!), biotechnology was at work.

In a broader sense, all agriculture is biotechnology, using biological organisms (plants and animals) to make a product (food). Through the centuries, selective breeding has honed agricultural crops to the point where today’s plants bear little resemblance to their distant wild forefathers (foreflowers?) and probably could not survive in the wild. (Unlike weeds, whose overwhelming vigor is precisely what makes them a problem.)

Similarly, agricultural animals have been selectively bred over the millenia (there are references to attempts to breed specific traits in sheep in the Old Testament) until today’s beasts are really artificial creatures that, like modern crops, likely could not survive in the wild.

All of which just makes the point that attempting to improve useful species is something that mankind has been doing, albeit through the extremely slow process of selective breeding, throughout history and even pre-history. There may have been more luck to it than science–but it worked.

Today, we have a whole new tool with which to modify species. It’s called “genetic engineering.”

Genetic information–the information passed from an organism to its offspring–is contained in the incredibly small coils of DNA, a complex substance that can replicate itself. Engineering something too small to be seen might seem impossible at first. After all, you can’t go down to the hardware store and pick up a set of DNA screwdrivers and a molecular monkey wrench.

However, there are ways. Certain chemicals will cut particular pieces of DNA in exactly the same place every time, and others will join cut pieces back together again. Using these chemicals, called enzymes, scientists can take a piece of DNA containing just the genetic information they want (say, a gene from a bacterium that produces a chemical toxic to insects) into another organism (say, a rye plant) creating a crop which makes its own insecticide. (Saskatchewan scientists are doing precisely that.)

Genetic engineering is also used to increase resistance to disease; to produce microorganisms that in turn produce valuable medical substances such as insulin and interferon; to create bacteria that can clean up spills of oil and other toxic substances, and more. There’s little doubt the impact of this new form of biotechnology will outweigh the centuries of slow modification of species that preceded it, and it’s only beginning to be felt.

That being the case, what does the future hold?

Well, that depends on who you ask, how visionary they’re feeling that day, and whether they really like the idea of people rummaging around in the genetic attic.

 But here are a few predictions from various sources:

By 2000, it’s estimated genetic engineering will add $20 billion annually to the value of world crops.
Cows could be genetically engineered to produce useful substances such as interferon in their milk. These substances could easily be extracted and purified, and the milk sold as usual.
Slaughter animals and their attendant problems could be done away with entirely; instead cloned, brainless slabs of beef, lamb, pork, chicken or any other meat could be grown in vats.
Silk, cotton or flax could be produced by microorganisms growing in a fermentor.
Genetically engineered canola could produce chocolate–or, at least, something with the flavour and texture of chocolate.
The genetic damage that gives rise to diseases such as sickle cell anemia could be repaired, so that people suffering from such illnesses would be able to have children without worrying about passing on their disease to their offspring.
In the far, far future, human beings themselves could be “genegineered” into new forms. Imagine a race of humans with gills and webbed hands and feet, living beneath the ocean.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for gills, but some of these other developments, and more we haven’t even thought of yet, may be just around the corner.

Are you ready for the age of designer genes?

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