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L.Srikumar Pai
B.Sc( Engg.), MIE, MIWWA, MICI
Civil Engineer & CAD Specialist
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Genetic Engineering

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By Sunilkumar Ravi: The Telford family was very happy to hear from Dr Thomas that their twins, still in the womb, could be saved. Few weeks before, one of the babies was detected with a defect in the growth hormone. For some unknown reasons a particular gene relating to growth was not functioning. Now the doctor informed that it can be turned on, and they could expect healthy twins, thanks to genetic engineering.

What I have just told now, although very fascinating is not common practice. But the day is not far away that we will have such therapies becoming part of everyday life; because, Genetic Engineering is frontier technology and is here to stay.

What is genetic Engineering? It is the alteration of genetic code by artificial means. Genetic information is carried by long molecule called DNA.DNA is the blueprint for the individuality of an organism. It is like a string of letters, using a four letter alphabet, easily copied when living cells reproduce. The sequences of letters make sentences, which we call genes. The genes are the instructions for making and operating a living cell. These genes are the reason why children look like their parents. For example you might have observed children having exact features like nose, eyes, hair, chin etc of their parents. These characteristics or traits are copied across generations. Genetic Engineering is the direct manipulation of such genes to get a specific result. In the case I discussed earlier Genetic Engineering can be used, to turn on the inactive gene in the twin by directly manipulating the gene.

Today we will discuss the various applications of Genetic Engineering and its pros and cons.

Genetic Engineering originated in the late 1960s. By the end of 1970, techniques for isolating and altering genes were developed by American scientists.

Toast masters, we all know that human body produces insulin and when the body stops producing insulin, it will lead to brain haemorrhage, partial paralysis, coma or even loss of life. In 1980 with genetically modified bacteria, first medical insulin was found. It has helped the medical science a lot. Even common man knows about insulin available in medical shops, although they may not know that it is a contribution of Genetic engineering. Another major achievement was the vaccine for Hepatitis B.

Genetic Engineering or GE for short, made a revolution in the case of crops, improving the yields and the crop’s resistance to perish. Not many of us know that we are already using the genetically engineered products. For example, tomatoes are sensitive to cold season and they cannot be grown in cold season. Fish on the other hand survive on very cold water. Scientists identified a particular gene which enables a deep sea fish to resist cold.  Biologists used the technology of GE to insert this anti-freeze gene into tomato. This helps to extend the growing season of the tomato. Next time you see a very red, big tomato in the market, remember, it may be a contribution of GE.

In 1996 British microbiologist Ian Wilmut and his colleagues pioneered the technique of cloning mammals from the cells of adult animals. They produced a clone of a sheep which they named Dolly. Cloning is not yet done in human beings neither is it legally allowed. Otherwise, toastmaster club would have certainly asked for clones of explosive toast masters.    

In materials science, a genetically modified virus has been used to construct a more environmentally friendly lithium-ion battery.

Human genetic engineering has the potential to change human beings' appearance, adaptability, intelligence, character, and behaviour. The greatest power of these enhancements is that the change is permanent and is passed on to future generations.

Genetic engineering works because there is one language of life:  human genes work in bacteria, monkey genes work in mice and earthworms.  Tree genes work in bananas and frog genes work in rice.  There is no limit in theory to the potential of genetic engineering. GE has given us the power to alter the very basis of life on earth. But, remember, we are experimenting with very delicate, yet powerful forces of nature, without full knowledge of the repercussions.

Let us take a look at the negative aspects of GE. A genetic engineer moves a gene from one organism to another. Taking of a gene from the DNA of an organism is easy, but the inserting it into the DNA of the target organism is basically random. As a result, it may disrupt the functioning of other genes creating problem for the overall functioning of that organism. Genetic Engineering is like performing delicate heart surgery with tools like a big shovel. Scientists do not have full understanding of living systems completely enough to perform DNA surgery. Hence side effects of such surgeries cannot be fathomed. The side effects may be harmful to the environment and our health.

Same is the case for crops. All the crops genetically produced have identical genes, hence if a new fungus or virus infects a particular genetically engineered crop, it could lead to widespread crop failure.             

GE has been used to change the fundamental nature of the foods we eat. Without long-term testing, no one knows if these foods are safe. Health hazards include toxins in foods, allergic reactions and side effects can kill people.

Suggestions to avoid or to mitigate hazards are that, all the GE food stuffs need to be labelled properly, so that customers can make their own choice.

Once genetically engineered organisms like bacteria and viruses are released into the environment, it is impossible to recall them. It can cause epidemics.

To conclude my speech, I would certainly say that Genetic Engineering should not be used for enhancing human life. All the experiments should be conducted under the control of government bodies. They should be tested thoroughly for long term before being released widely. Food stuff should be labelled / tagged as genetically engineered, so that people can choose for themselves.

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