Genetic Engineering Basics

:: What is Genetic Engineering?

Biological entities are comprised of millions of cells. Each cell has a nucleus, and inside every nucleus are strings of DeoxyriboNucleic Acid. DNA carries complete information regarding the function and structure of organisms ranging from plants and animals to bacterium. Genes, which are sequences of DNA, determine an organism's growth, size, and other characteristics. Genes are the vehicle by which species transfer inheritable characteristics to successive generations. Genetic engineering is the process of artificially manipulating these heritable characteristics.

Genetic engineering in its broadest sense has been around for thousands of years, since people first recognized that they could mate animals with specific characteristics to produce offspring with desirable traits, and use agricultural seed selectively. In 1863, Mendel discovered that traits were transmitted from parents to progeny by discrete, independent units, later called genes. His observations laid the groundwork for the field of genetics.

Modern human genetic engineering entered the scientific realm in the nineteenth century with the introduction of Eugenics. Although not yet technically considered "Genetic Engineering" it represents society's first attempt to scientifically alter the human evolutionary process.

The practice of human genetic engineering is considered by some to have had it's beginnings with In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) in 1978. IVF paved the way for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which is the process by which an embryo is microscopically examined for signs of genetic disorders. Several genetic-based diseases can be identified by PGD and the embryo "discarded" if the future human is likely to suffer from the affliction. The ethical, moral, and religious implications are obvious. Perhaps even more controversial is the fact that PGD allows for the identification of gender, and enables parents (or other decision-making authority) to decide whether or not to allow an embryo to develop based on the sex of the child. This ability has the potential to impact society's male/female balance and raises the issue of regulation and quota-based births.

However, true Genetic Engineering is the process of directly manipulating DNA within a cell. A red-letter date for true Human Genetic Engineering came in 1988 when Congress funded the Human Genome Project, an enormous effort to map and sequence the human genetic code as well as the genomes of other species. Armed with this data, the door is open for a whole new world of possibilities.

The next page discusses some ways we introduce new genes into living cells.

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