5 Essential Benefits of Genetic Engineering
Before we dive headfirst into all the benefits that the field of genetic engineering has brought to our lives, let’s first begin by defining the concept of genetic engineering.
What is genetic engineering? How is it done? Who uses genetic engineering?
The discipline has been around for several decades. Also referred to as genetic modification or genetic manipulation, it is a process by which an organism’s genome is changed. In other words, it refers to the manipulation or change of the genetic material—or DNA—as a means to change an organism’s characteristics, also referred to as the phenotype. Even more specifically, it is the process of changing the base pairs that make up the DNA strand or deleting a whole chunk of DNA or inserting a whole new DNA sequence into another. The process can also mean combining DNA sequences from two different species by means of taking a sequence from one and inserting into that of another species.
Speaking of species, the process of genetic engineering can be conducted on several species, large or small, within the range spanning from a virus and all the way up to a sheep.
An example of genetic engineering among plants is the production of plant species that have better nutritional value as well as plants that are more resistant to herbicides.
The process of genetic engineering is best explained with an example. Let’s talk a bit about insulin, the famous protein that controls our blood sugar levels. In healthy individuals, following a meal, the blood sugar levels rise. Specific cells, called beta cells, then signal the body to release insulin that signals cells to uptake sugar that they need for proper function. If after all the cells have taken onboard enough sugar, there is still some left in the blood, and insulin packages it away and stores it for later use. This is also its way to maintain normal blood sugar levels. In individuals with type 1 diabetes, the beta cells are not able to summon the insulin following a meal, which means that the blood sugar levels remain too high. This is also why type 1 diabetics need insulin injections to maintain healthy sugar levels in their blood. Thanks to genetic engineering, yeast and bacteria have been designed (or genetically engineered) to produce insulin that is very similar to that of humans. And that is the insulin that is used in the injections for diabetic individuals.
So, let’s get back to our original aim, namely the five essential benefits to genetic engineering.
1. Scientific research
As mentioned above, genetic engineering allows us to take DNA chunks from one species and insert it into another. This has done wonders for the scientific research community that is working to not only understand certain diseases but to also create potential cures for them. The efforts toward understanding and curing Alzheimer’s disease, for example, have greatly benefited from genetic engineering by means of the nematode, C. elegans. This organism, for one, only has 300 cells, and this simplicity is convenient for any disease study. The organism is also transparent allowing researchers to visualize protein pathways and where they accumulate (perfect for neurodegenerative diseases).
The benefits of genetic engineering within this discipline have been around for almost three decades. What has been done with crops (and similar plants) is that one or more genes that code for the desired traits (such as resistance to pesticides or enhanced flavor) has been inserted into the plants’ genomes. Cotton and corn, for example, by virtue of genetic engineering, harbor genes that produce proteins that are toxic to specific species that would otherwise attack and destroy them. This has helped increase the agricultural yield by a great deal, which means more food for humankind.
By far the most beneficial aspect of genetic engineering is something called gene therapy. Most fundamentally, it refers to the medical treatment of a disease or condition by a process of either repairing or replacing a defective gene or via the introduction of a therapeutic gene that can combat a disease. Several autoimmune, as well as heart diseases, have been treated via this method. Gene therapy for cancer, for example, is currently being investigated.
4. Pharmaceutical Industry
This is somewhat along the lines of both medicine and scientific research, and it touches upon the insulin examples. Genetic engineering has greatly advanced this field as it has enabled research and drug design based on live animal models rather than the historic cadaver situations.
Genetic engineering has enabled a powerful means for pregnant women so that they are now able to screen their fetuses for potential genetic diseases as early as the first few weeks of gestational age. This is powerful because both physicians, as well as parents, have the option to prepare for the arrival of a child that will potentially have special needs. The future of the field of genetic engineering within this realm is gearing toward designing therapies that could be used to treat those babies while still in their mothers’ wombs.
The aforementioned are just a few examples of the benefits of genetic engineering and how it has advanced medicine, drug design, and the foods we eat all by means of advancing science. Rest assured that, within the next few years, this list will become longer, either by virtue of each of the aforementioned categories giving rise to subcategories or by means of simply expanding through even more additions. Whatever the future holds for genetic engineering, it should be viewed with cautious optimism. With each new discovery, there are both pros and cons that have to be weighed appropriately for the greatest outcome.