A line that everybody who has encountered biology knows. But have you ever wondered about the immensity of this microscopic creation?
Well, that is exactly what we are going to discuss in the following article. In this article, we will be dealing with one of the most intriguing and astoundingly mind-bending works to be ever done – Advanced Genetic Engineering.
1. What is Genetic Engineering?
Before diving into the sea, it is always better to gauge its course. Likewise, let us first have a look at the basics of the topic. In simple terms, genetic engineering refers to a scientific technique that involves altering the genetic material of an organism.
A geneticist manipulates the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) which carries the genetic instructions of living organisms. Changing the genome (protein-coding DNA sequence) alters the complete traits of the specimen and puts it to human benefit.
By alteration, we are referring to all the different techniques involved in the process. Scientists insert, modify, or even remove specific genes from an organism’s genome. We will briefly about the use of such procedures later in the article.
Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate and pioneer in the field of genetic engineering, defines it as follows: “Genetic engineering is the deliberate manipulation of genetic material to produce desired traits or outcomes.
It involves isolating, modifying, and reinserting specific DNA segments into an organism’s genome, resulting in heritable changes. This powerful technology allows scientists to introduce new genes, modify existing genes, or silence genes, enabling the creation of organisms with enhanced characteristics or novel functionalities.
Genetic engineering holds great potential for advancements in agriculture, medicine, and other fields, but it also raises important ethical considerations that must be carefully addressed.”
2. Advanced Genetic Engineering – Explained
Now that we have a decent idea about what genetic engineering is, we must now move on to the core of our discussion. Advanced genetic engineering is much like the one that we described earlier.
The difference lies in the vastness and approach of the two. Like traditional genetic engineering, advanced gene modification also works on the same basics and has the same concept guiding it. But unlike the conventional technique, advanced gene alteration involves wider aspects of science.
Modern genetic engineering focuses on intermixing different niches such as modern medicine, agriculture, and therapeutics. It wouldn’t be incorrect if one calls present-day genetic engineering an upgraded version with much more scope for innovation and research.
So, what do we conclude so far? Advanced genetic engineering is an evolution or progression of traditional genetic engineering methods. While both involve the deliberate manipulation of an organism’s genetic material, advanced genetic engineering incorporates newer techniques and technologies that offer enhanced precision, efficiency, and versatility compared to earlier approaches.
3. How do We Differentiate Between Traditional and Modern Gene Modification?
Though one cannot draw a clear-cut line to differentiate the two, some key distinctions characterize them. Given below are some of the aspects which bifurcate the two fields of bioengineering.
|Traditional Genetic Engineering||Advanced Genetic Engineering|
|Precision and Specificity||Traditional methods allowed for some level of precision, but with limited specificity. For example, we could quite accurately make altered DNA but could not completely control its expression.||
Advanced techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas9, provide highly precise and specific targeting of genes and genomic regions.
|Ease of Use||Traditional genetic engineering methods often involve time-consuming and labour-intensive processes like manual mapping and marking of gene sequences.||Advanced techniques offer far more efficient and streamlined processes. This not only reduces the time but also the human effort required.|
|Versatility||Earlier techniques worked with a specific range of genetic elements.||Advanced techniques have a broader range of applicability, allowing manipulation of various genetic elements and complex modifications.|
|Accessibility||Traditional techniques require specialized knowledge and equipment. Such equipment was costly as well as required great maintenance to work accurately.||Advanced techniques, like CRISPR-Cas9, are better integrated and thus more accessible and widely adopted.|
|Adoption||Traditional genetic engineering methods are well-established and widely used today as scientists are more aware and comfortable with them.||Advanced genetic engineering techniques are also gaining rapid adoption and becoming standard practice in the field.|
|Examples||Recombinant DNA technology, transgenic organisms.||CRISPR-Cas9, gene drives, synthetic biology, advanced vectors, gene editing for specific traits or disease treatment.|
4. Roots of the Research
All the mind-blowing scientific inventions that we see today are the result of many years of work and research. To get a better idea about genetic modification, we must look back at its historical background. The following section deals with the key milestones that occurred in the journey of its development.
4.1 1953: Discovery of DNA
In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick unveiled their double-helix model of DNA, based on Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography data.
This discovery provided the structural basis for understanding the storing and transmission of genetic information. Considered to be the backbone of all our present-day research; DNA discovery has great significance in the world of science.
4.2 1970s: Development of Recombinant DNA Technology
Recombinant DNA technology grew its influence mainly in the 1970s. It not only allowed scientists to manipulate DNA but also gave them the freedom to cut and join fragments from different sources.
At present, restriction endonucleases (molecular scissors) are being used for the process. This breakthrough opened possibilities for gene cloning, genetic engineering, and the production of valuable proteins through genetic modification.
4.3 1973: Creation of the First Genetically Modified Organism
Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen made a significant breakthrough in genetic engineering by successfully inserting a specific gene into a bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis). This achievement demonstrated the effective possibility of introducing foreign genes into organisms. This experiment also laid the foundation for future advancements in genetic modification.
4.4 1980s: Development of Transgenic Animals
The scientific community did not stop at just modifying micro-organisms. In the 1980s, researchers began genetically modifying animals too. By introducing foreign genes into their genomes and instilling the required traits, they could form animals with completely different genetic makeup.
This led to the creation of various transgenic animals. They were able to produce mice, pigs, and even cows, with modified traits or abilities. These genetically modified animals have been instrumental in understanding gene function, disease modelling, and advancing medical research.
4.5 1983: Agricultural Applications
The development of the first genetically modified plant took place in 1983. A tobacco plant resistant to antibiotics paved the way for agricultural applications of genetic engineering. Since then, genetically modified crops are being developed with traits that are beneficial to humankind.
Characters like insect resistance and herbicide tolerance are now being imparted to plants. Disease resistance and improved nutritional content are the key prospects of today’s genetic engineering programs. The sole aim of all these operations is to enhance crop productivity and address agricultural challenges.
4.6 1990: Human Genome Project
The Human Genome Project was a megaproject that was initiated in 1990 and completed in 2003. It was an international collaboration to map and sequence the entire human genome. This landmark project provided a comprehensive reference for understanding human genetics, identifying disease-related genes, and advancing personalized medicine.
4.7 The 1990s: Gene Therapy
In the 1990s, advancements occurred in gene therapy techniques. Gene therapy involves introducing functional genes into cells to treat genetic disorders. The first recipient of the therapy was a little girl of just 4 years who suffered from SCID (Severe combined immunodeficiency).
These advancements have brought new hope for potential treatments of inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, and certain types of cancer too.
4.8 2012: CRISPR-Cas9 Revolution
The discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 in 2012 revolutionized genetic engineering. CRISPR-Cas9 is a precise and efficient gene-editing tool that mimics processes from a bacterial defense mechanism. Its simplicity and versatility have accelerated research in various fields, enabling targeted gene modifications, disease modeling, and potential therapeutic applications.
5. Toolbox of Genetic Engineering
Now that we have a decent idea about the origin and basics of genetic manipulation; it would be great if we get to know about the different techniques involved in the process. We have discussed about 8 such methodologies that are commonly used.
These techniques when put together, bring about marvellous scientific inventions or as we say, “Discoveries of the Decade”.
5.1 Recombinant DNA Technology:
This technique involves the cutting and rejoining of DNA fragments from different sources. The sources can be either purely natural or even some other man-made creatures. The active research conducted in this field has enabled the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
It allows the transfer of desired genes into target organisms, leading to the expression of specific traits or the production of valuable proteins. These proteins or their by-products are utilized by scientists to further expand the application.
5.2 Gene Cloning:
Gene cloning involves the creation of identical copies of a specific gene. By isolating and amplifying the desired gene, researchers can produce large quantities of the gene product. By gene product, we usually refer to compounds that are beneficial to humans such as proteins or enzymes for various applications in medicine, industry, and research.
5.3 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR):
PCR is a powerful tool that amplifies a specific segment of DNA. By repeatedly heating and cooling the DNA sample at a specified temperature, the PCR machine is capable of generating millions of copies of the target DNA.
Advancements in technology have allowed us to automatically choose regions to be amplified rather than manually doing so. Such modern technologies have been of great help in facilitating genetic analysis, diagnostics, and even DNA sequencing.
5.4 Gene Editing:
Gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas9, enable precise modifications of specific genes. Moreover, these tools can not only add and remove but also modify genetic material according to the research’s aspect. Allowing researchers to study gene function, develop disease models, and potentially correct genetic defects in therapeutic applications.
Transformation is not strictly a distinct step in the procedure. It could be thought of as a subsidiary in the operation. Transformation, unlike transduction, involves the uptake and integration of foreign DNA into the genome of an organism.
By introducing new genetic material, researchers can confer desired traits, such as insect resistance or improved nutrient content to plants and microorganisms.
5.6 RNA Interference (RNAi):
RNAi is a new-age technique that utilizes small RNA molecules to selectively inhibit gene expression. By introducing specific RNA molecules, researchers can silence or reduce the expression of target genes. One might ask, why do we need to silence gene expressions? Let us look at one such case study.
“Meloidogyne incognita” commonly known as the southern root-knot nematode; is a plant-parasitic nematode that causes significant damage to a wide range of crops. Agrobacterium is a soil bacterium.
Though it is not directly associated with root knots it is of great help when it comes to modifying the vulnerable plants. RNA interference (RNAi) is utilized as a potential strategy to combat nematode infestation.
By introducing small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) targeting essential genes of M. incognita into the nematodes or host plants, RNAi can disrupt gene function and hinder their ability to cause root knots.
5.7 Site-Directed Mutagenesis:
Unlike the aforementioned, This technique enables the precise introduction of desired genetic changes in a specific gene sequence. By altering or deleting specific nucleotides, researchers can study the impact of genetic variations on gene function and develop novel traits in organisms.
5.8 Gene Synthesis:
Gene synthesis involves chemically creating custom DNA sequences based on desired genetic information. This technique allows the generation of genes with optimized properties, novel functions, or rare sequences, enabling scientific research and the production of synthetic biological components.
6. Advanced Genetic Engineering in the Real World
In addition to the differences and basic techniques involved in the process, we must also be aware of the present-day applications of advanced genetic engineering. Given below are some of the common areas of use where bioengineering plays a key role.
6.1 Gene Therapy
Genetic engineering has enabled the development of gene therapy. It is not only a promising approach to treating genetic disorders; moreover, it has shown success in treating diseases that are complex and considered incurable to date.
By introducing functional genes into the patient’s cells, we can work with a vast spectrum of illnesses. This technique is extremely helpful in treating diseases such as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) and haemophilia.
6.2 Personalized Medicine
There are different mechanisms involved in the due course of building personalized medicine. Some of these are highly sophisticated processes, such as DNA sequencing and gene expression profiling. Advanced genetic manipulation has paved the way for making these processes feasible and accessible to a larger population.
Thus, helping in the growth of the personalized medicine market. Moreover, by analyzing an individual’s genetic makeup, it is possible to tailor medical treatments and interventions to their specific genetic profile. In addition to the optimized efficacy, such alterations also minimize the possible side effects.
6.3 Crop Improvement
Gene engineering allows the introduction of specific traits into crops to improve their performance. By desirable traits, we are referring to traits such as herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, drought tolerance, disease resistance, and enhanced nutritional content.
For example, genetically modified (GM) crops like Bt cotton and Bt corn produce a protein (Bt toxin) toxic to certain pests. The toxin kills the pests without any damage to the plant produce and thus reduces the need for chemical insecticides.
6.3 Recombinant Protein Production
Apart from internal functioning, genetic engineering also helps in controlling the external or morphological features of an individual. If I were to explain the process briefly, this would be my insight. With careful implementation of recombinant DNA technology, we can produce large quantities of specific proteins.
This has revolutionized the production of therapeutic proteins like insulin, growth factors, and clotting factors, which aid in treating various diseases.
6.4 Vaccine Development
Genetic engineering plays a vital role in vaccine development too. Recombinant DNA technology enables the production of vaccines in a much more feasible manner as compared to conventional approaches. By introducing specific genes into a harmless carrier like a virus or bacteria, to stimulate an immune response without causing disease.
When the body encounters the pathogen in the future, the memory of the first encounter accelerates the fighting response. Examples include the development of vaccines for hepatitis B, human papillomavirus (HPV), and recently COVID-19.
6.5 Extended Shelf Life for Crop Yield
Genetic engineering techniques are also used to modify fruits and vegetables to have a longer shelf life. This can be done by delaying ripening time and reducing spoilage. As a result, we can reduce food wastage and improve marketability.
6.6 Improved Nutritional Content in Plants
Gene engineering can indefinitely enhance the nutritional quality of crops as per our needs. For example, “Golden Rice” is a genetically modified rice variety that contains beta-carotene (A precursor of Vitamin A). This can help combat Vitamin A deficiency in patients.
Genetic engineering has contributed to the field of pharmacogenomics also. Pharmacogenomics is the field of biology research that focuses mainly on how an individual’s genetic makeup affects their response to drugs. By identifying genetic variations associated with drug metabolism and response, healthcare professionals can personalize medication choices and dosages for better treatment outcomes.
6.8 Disease Modelling and Drug Discovery
Genetic engineering techniques allow scientists to create animal models (transgenic animals) with specific genetic modifications that mimic human diseases. Moreover, these models help researchers understand disease mechanisms and test potential therapies.
Biologists can also identify drug targets for various conditions, including cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and cardiovascular diseases. This is a great boost to the research and analysis sector as it opens up the scope for new advancements particularly related to “incurable diseases”.
6.9 Environmental Sustainability
Gene engineering has contributed significantly to the development of environmentally sustainable agriculture. Research at present aims at developing crops that require fewer pesticides or are resistant to specific herbicides.
It is expected that with the help of such a modified crop, we can reduce chemical usage and the associated environmental impact. Additionally, genetically engineered crops need to be according to our requirements. They can be specially modified to improve nutrient utilization, reducing fertilizer requirements and eventually minimizing nutrient runoff into water bodies.
7. Limitations of the Program
- One significant concern when developing genetically modified organisms is the potential for unintended genetic changes. One might ask- Why so? The problem with mutations in non-target regions of the genome is that they can lead to unpredictable consequences. These consequences might range from small-scale disruptions of normal gene function to drastic effects like the introduction of new hazards. Ensuring high specificity and accuracy in genetic modifications is challenging yet very crucial to minimize off-target effects.
- The regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) varies across countries and regions. In India, GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee), has the authority to cease experiments if it is a probable threat to the community. On the other hand, these authorities can create challenges for the development and commercialization of genetically engineered products. Moreover, the regulatory process for assessing the safety and environmental impacts of GMOs can be a complex and time-consuming one. In addition to increasing the overall cost, it also disturbs the timeline of bringing genetically modified crops to market.
- All miracles come at a cost. Genetic engineering also raises ethical, social, and environmental concerns among some segments of the public. Public perception of GMOs can influence consumer acceptance and market demand. Addressing public concerns and promoting transparency and education are vital for fostering understanding and acceptance of genetic engineering technologies.
8. Wrapping it Up
In conclusion, genetic engineering holds tremendous potential for revolutionizing various fields, including agriculture, medicine, and biotechnology. While facing challenges such as safety concerns and public perception, with continued advancements, improved precision, and responsible implementation, genetic engineering has to shape a future marked by enhanced crop yields, disease treatments, and sustainable solutions.