What is Genetic Engineering: GS Paper 3, UPSC IAS Mains 2020

Topics to be covered are:


What is Genetic Engineering?

Historical Developments

Process and Techniques



Dangers associated with Genetic Engineering

Gene Editing CRISPR-Cas-9

Way forward and Conclusion

In recent history, Genetic Engineering could also be one among the greatest breakthroughs with the invention of an atom and space flight. We can’t ignore that over 50 years or so, the field of genetic engineering has developed rapidly may be due to the greater understanding of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) as the chemical double helix code from which genes are made.

The engineering term is used to describe the process by which the genetic makeup of an organism can be altered or changed by using “recombinant DNA technology.

We have seen via COVID-19 that how biological pathogens can be as destructive as nuclear missiles. However, through Genetic Engineering, technological advancements can also provide a cure and a strong defense against it. Thus, at the global level, there should be efforts in developing bio-defences.

This year, Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna “for the development of a method for genome editing.” It’s awarded for the discovery of one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors.

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What is Genetic Engineering?

It is the artificial manipulation, modification, and recombination of DNA or other nucleic acid molecules to modify an organism or population of organisms.

It is a term that was first introduced into our languages in the 1970s to explain the emerging field of recombinant DNA technology and some other things that were going on.

With the help of genetic engineering, scientists are able to move desirable genes from one plant or animal to another or from a plant to an animal or vice versa.

In other words, we can say that genetic engineering is a technology in which a specific gene can be selected and implanted into the recipient organism.

Some of the examples are:

The process of Genetic engineering consists of splicing an area of a chromosome, gene, that controls a particular characteristic of the body. And can be reprogrammed to produce an antiviral protein.

This gene is removed and can be placed into a bacterial cell where it is often sealed into the DNA chain by using ligase.

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Genetic Engineering: Historical Developments

The genetic engineering term embraced both artificial selection and all the interventions of biomedical techniques including artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization that is test-tube babies, cloning, and gene manipulation.

However, the term in the latter part of the 20th century referred to as the methods of recombinant DNA technology or gene cloning. In this DNA molecules from two or more sources are combined either within the cells or in vitro and are then inserted into the host organisms in which they are able to propagate.

In 1968 with the discovery of restriction enzymes the possibility of recombinant DNA technology emerged and the discovery was done by the Swiss microbiologist Werner Arber.

The same year American microbiologists named Hamilton O. Smith purified and called type II restriction enzymes. They were found to be essential to genetic engineering as they have the ability to cleave a specific site within the DNA.

In 1970–71, drawing on Smith’s work an American molecular biologist Daniel Nathans helped advance the DNA technique of recombination and demonstrated that type II enzymes might be useful within the studies of genetics.

In 1973, Genetic engineering based on recombination was pioneered by the American biochemists Stanley N. Cohen and Herbert W. Boyer. They were among the first to cut DNA into fragments then they rejoin the different fragments and insert the new genes into the E. coli bacteria, which later reproduced.

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Genetic Engineering: Process and Techniques

Many recombinant DNA technology has the insertion of foreign genes into the plasmids of common laboratory strains of bacteria. Plasmids are small rings of DNA but are not the part of the bacterium’s chromosome which is the main repository of the organism’s genetic information.

They are also capable of directing protein synthesis and like chromosomal DNA, they are reproduced and passed on to the progeny of bacteria. Therefore, incorporating the foreign DNA into a bacterium, almost number of a limitless copies researchers can obtain of the inserted gene.

And if the inserted gene is operative that is if it directs the synthesis of protein then the modified bacterium will produce the protein specified by the foreign DNA.

In the early 21st century the techniques of genetic engineering that is emerged are centred on gene editing. It is based on a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 and allows the researchers to customise a living organism’s genetic sequence by generating very specific changes to its DNA.

What are the advantages of Genetic Engineering?

Let us brief you that Genetic engineering techniques are used only when all other techniques have been exhausted. The crops that are developed through genetic engineering are referred to as transgenic crops or genetically modified (GM) crops. Examples are Bt Cotton, genetically engineering plants with more desirable traits are drought-resistant plants, disease resistant-crops, plants that grow faster, etc.

Genetic Disorder treatment and Other Diseases. Through genetic engineering, genetic disorders may also be corrected by replacing the faulty gene with a functional gene. Like Disease-carrying insects, such as mosquitoes, may be engineered into becoming sterile insects, etc.

Therapeutic Cloning is a process in which embryonic cells are closed to obtain biological organs for transplantation.

With gene-editing technique CRISPR/Cas-9, there is a hope of curing inherited diseases etc.

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What are the challenges of Genetic Engineering?

As we have seen that genetic engineering is beneficial in several ways but it also has some sort of disadvantages like:

There may be some kind of irreversible changes. As per some scientists that genetically-modified genes may have an irreversible effect with some unknown consequences. GMO can cause some harmful genetic effects and from one species to another, genes moving is not genetically engineered.

Related with GMO crops, some health issues can be generated. There are concerns that the creation of food may cause an allergic reaction.

There are several kinds of moral and ethical issues borderlines with the genetic engineering techniques. One of the major and common questions that raised is that humans have the right to manipulate the laws and nature.

A research report in Nature Medicine contradicts the likelihood of intentional engineering of Sars-CoV-2, genetic engineering could well be the cause of the next pandemic.

Is there any sort of dangers associated with Genetic Engineering?

Some or the other way as the technology is growing in greater pace as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene-editing which are developed a few years ago consists of the same natural mechanism in which the bacteria is used to trim pieces of genetic information from one genome and then insert it into the another. This mechanism in which bacteria developed to defend from viruses has been turned into a cheap, simple, or quick way to edit the DNA of any organism in the laboratory.

The gene-editing CRISPR is cheap and easy to use. Several scientists across the world are researching and experimenting with this technology  and the technologies have democratised to such an extent that any country can engineer viruses. Not only dangers come from governments but also non-state actors, bio-hackers can have access to the same tools. Also, it has been said that researchers can recreate deadly viruses which may take humanity decades to eradicate it.

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About Gene Editing CRISPR/Cas9

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have discovered one among gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Researchers by using this technology can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. It will pave the revolutionary impact on the life sciences and also contributes to new cancer therapies and should make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.

According to the researchers by using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks.

During the studies of Emmanuelle Charpentier, Streptococcus pyogenes, one among the bacteria which will cause the foremost harm to humanity and she discovered a previously unknown molecule that’s tracrRNA. As per her research and work, tracrRNA may be a part of bacteria’s ancient immune system and CRISPR/Cas disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA. In 2011, she published her discovery and the same year she initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna.

Jennifer Doudna is an experienced biochemist who has a vast knowledge of RNA. Together they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplified them so that they can be easily used.

The function of the scissor is to recognise DNA from viruses and both Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could be controlled so that they will be able to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Where the DNA is cut it becomes easier to rewrite the code of life.

In 2012, genetic scissors  CRISPR/Cas9 were discovered by Charpentier and Doudna and so their use has exploded. The research has contributed in several ways, in various important discoveries, plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mould, pests and drought.

It is also used in medicine, clinical trials of new cancer patients therapies are underway and are said that the dream o being able to cure inherited diseases may come to true.

No doubt that the discovery of genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and in various ways are bringing the greatest benefits to humankind.

Therefore, it is necessary that with the development of new technologies good side of it should be accelerated like Leveraging Artificial Intelligence & Big Data, Deploying 3D Printing, Gathering of Genomic Data, etc.

At last, we can conclude that technologies are developed for providing the benefits and there is a need of the hour to use it and analyse the data and develop the treatments. With the help of Genetic Engineering, India can make a strong position and lead the world in research and innovation. As discussed above gene-editing technology will pave the revolutionary impact on the life sciences and also contributes to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.

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