Have you ever thought carefully about scientists in science fiction movies? Specifically, in those that create some supervirus that ends up exterminating almost the entire human species. Or those who manage to bring back extinct species and create a successful theme park, but in the end everything spirals out of control and the dinosaurs have a great feast.
The truth is that, as in many other cases, fiction is far from reality. Real scientists are neither crazy like the characters in the movies, nor do they direct their investigations to destroy humanity. They work hard to improve people’s quality of life and, in addition, they subject these jobs to very strict controls.
Today we will talk about genetic engineering and clarify some concepts in order to remove those preconceptions.
The genetic engineering is dedicated to genetic manipulation using a number of techniques to manage and modify the genetic material of various forms. This opens up a wide range of possibilities in many fields and fields of study. So much so that, today, we are surrounded by genetically modified organisms and most of the time we do not realize it.
What is a genetically modified organism and what is a transgenic?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism that has its DNA artificially altered. The key point of these organisms is to understand that there are many ways to modify the genetic material depending on what it is intended to achieve. It’s easy to fall for the idea that GMOs are a kind of genetic Frankenstein made with parts collected from who knows where. I myself, in my ignorance, have also come to think about it, but it is not true. Some GMOs have a gene that researchers have “put to sleep” so that it does not perform its function, others have genes that perform more than any worker in their most productive day, and others have added an extra that they never imagined they would have.
On the other hand, the term transgenic includes those organisms to which DNA that does not belong to their original genome, that is, exogenous, has been introduced. For this reason, all GMOs are genetically modified organisms. The problem comes when these two words are used interchangeably, a fact that is very common but it is still incorrect. Just as we can say that all daisies are flowers but not all flowers are daisies, we can say that all GMOs are GMOs but not all GMOs are GMOs. This specification, however small it may seem, is very important when regulating each type of genetically modified organism.
The history of genetically modified organisms
In 1973, a group of researchers built in vitro a plasmid (a circular DNA molecule of bacteria, archaea and viruses) that conferred resistance to different antibiotics. Subsequently, the researchers introduced the resistance plasmid into a bacterium of the Escherichia coli strain . They had created the first genetically modified organism.
From this moment on, the field of genetic engineering began to emerge. An example of this was the creation of the first transgenic animal, a mouse to which exogenous DNA was introduced when it was an embryo. A few years later, in the early 1980s, it was the plants’ turn, specifically, a tobacco plant that was given resistance to an antibiotic.
Initially, the transgenesis procedure was devised in order to improve an organism by adding to it a genetic character that it did not initially have. To do this, it is necessary to find an organism of another species that has the characteristic of interest and locate the gene or genes responsible for it. After extracting and cutting the DNA of the organism that naturally possesses the trait, it must be cloned and introduced into a suitable vector for transfer to the genome of the recipient organism. To understand us, a genetic vector would be the means that researchers use to transport genes inside the cell, almost like a train between organisms with a single stop.
At present, many different genetic manipulation techniques have been developed to which we could dedicate a specific post for each of them. The level of progress is such that it is now possible to clone genes, modify them and even synthesize them. Furthermore, the expression of specific genes can be controlled in different ways, by silencing them ( knockout genes ) or increasing their level of expression.
What are the uses of genetically modified organisms?
The uses of GMOs are almost innumerable and are present in many areas, but they stand out especially in the agri-food industry, in the pharmaceutical industry and in medicine. Regarding the first one, the agri-food industry, it is worth mentioning that it has been especially controversial, due to genetically modified crops for consumption. This practice is carried out to create crops resistant to herbicides and pesticides, to increase production, to improve the physical characteristics of food, making it more palatable, or even to provide vitamins.
In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, the quintessential favorites are genetically modified bacteria. They are used as small bio-factories for the production of various substances, among which human proteins such as insulin, growth hormone, clotting factors, etc. stand out. In addition, GMOs have allowed the development of new vaccines and treatments, such as gene therapy, which was a real revolution.
In conclusion, it should be mentioned that genetic manipulation is a very controversial topic. It has many defenders and many detractors, but the most important thing is to be judgmental and learn what it is. We will not talk about the different opinions because that is not the intention of the post . Of course, now we know what terminology to use to give quality to our arguments.
- Cohen SN, Chang AC, Boyer HW, Helling RB Construction of biologically functional bacterial plasmids in vitro. 1973. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). Volume 70 number 11 pages 3240-3244. Doi: 10.1073 / pnas.70.11.3240
- Murray JD, Maga EA Genetically engineered livestock for agriculture: a generation after the first transgenic animal research conference. 2016. Transgenic Research. Volume 25 number 3 pages 321-327. Doi: 10.1007 / s11248-016-9927-7
- Key S, Ma JK, Drake PM Genetically modified plants and human health. 2008. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Volume 101 number 6 pages 290-298. Doi: 10.1258 / jrsm.2008.070372