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Genetic engineering

Drugs & Medication

Genetic engineering

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An iconic image of genetic engineering; this "autoluminograph" from 1986 of a glowing transgenic tobacco plant bearing the luciferase gene of the firefly, illustrating the possibilities of genetic engineering.
An iconic image of genetic engineering; this "autoluminograph" from 1986 of a glowing transgenic tobacco plant bearing the luciferase gene of the firefly, illustrating the possibilities of genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering, genetic modification (GM) and gene splicing are terms for the process of manipulating genes, usually outside the organism's normal reproductive process.

It involves the isolation, manipulation and reintroduction of DNA into cells or model organisms, usually to express a protein. The aim is to introduce new characteristics or attributes physiologically or physically, such as making a crop resistant to a herbicide, introducing a novel trait, or producing a new protein or enzyme. Examples can include the production of human insulin through the use of modified bacteria, the production of erythropoietin in Chinese Hamster Ovary cells, and the production of new types of experimental mice such as the OncoMouse (cancer mouse) for research, through genetic redesign.

Since a protein is specified by a segment of DNA called a gene, future versions of that protein can be modified by changing the gene's underlying DNA. One way to do this is to isolate the piece of DNA containing the gene, precisely cut the gene out, and then reintroduce (splice) the gene into a different DNA segment. Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Smith received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their isolation of restriction endonucleases, which are able to cut DNA at specific sites. Together with ligase, which can join fragments of DNA together, restriction enzymes formed the initial basis of recombinant DNA technology.

Applications

The first Genetically Engineered drug was human insulin approved by the USA's FDA in 1982 [1]. Another early application of genetic engineering was to create human growth hormone as replacement for a drug that was previously extracted from human cadavers. In 1986 the FDA approved the first genetically engineered vaccine for humans, for hepatitis B[2]. Since these early uses of the technology in medicine, the use of GE has expanded to supply many drugs and vaccines.

One of the best known applications of genetic engineering is that you can probilize the outcome of offspring. There are potentially momentous biotechnological applications of GM, for example oral vaccines produced naturally in fruit, at very low cost.

A radical ambition of some groups is human enhancement via genetics, eventually by molecular engineering.

Genetic engineering and research

Although there has been a tremendous revolution in the biological sciences in the past twenty years, there is still a great deal that remains to be discovered. The completion of the sequencing of the human genome, as well as the genomes of most agriculturally and scientifically important plants and animals, has increased the possibilities of genetic research immeasurably. Expedient and inexpensive access to comprehensive genetic data has become a reality with billions of sequenced nucleotides already online and annotated. Now that the rapid sequencing of arbitrarily large genomes has become a simple, if not trivial affair, a much greater challenge will be elucidating function of the extraordinarily complex web of interacting proteins, dubbed the proteome, that constitutes and powers all living things. Genetic engineering has become the gold standard in protein research, and major research progress has been made using a wide variety of techniques, including:

  • Loss of function, such as in a knockout experiment, in which an organism is engineered to lack the activity of one or more genes. This allows the experimenter to analyze the defects caused by this mutation, and can be considerably useful in unearthing the function of a gene. It is used especially frequently in developmental biology. A knockout experiment involves the creation and manipulation of a DNA construct in vitro, which, in a simple knockout, consists of a copy of the desired gene which has been slightly altered such as to cripple its function. The construct is then taken up by embryonic stem cells, where the engineered copy of the gene replaces the organism's own gene. These stem cells are injected into blastocysts, which are implanted into surrogate mothers. Another method, useful in organisms such as Drosophila (fruit fly), is to induce mutations in a large population and then screen the progeny for the desired mutation. A similar process can be used in both plants and prokaryotes.
  • Gain of function experiments, the logical counterpart of knockouts. These are sometimes performed in conjunction with knockout experiments to more finely establish the function of the desired gene. The process is much the same as that in knockout engineering, except that the construct is designed to increase the function of the gene, usually by providing extra copies of the gene or inducing synthesis of the protein more frequently.
  • 'Tracking' experiments, which seek to gain information about the localization and interaction of the desired protein. One way to do this is to replace the wild-type gene with a 'fusion' gene, which is a juxtaposition of the wild-type gene with a reporting element such as Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) that will allow easy visualization of the products of the genetic modification. While this is a useful technique, the manipulation can destroy the function of the gene, creating secondary effects and possibly calling into question the results of the experiment. More sophisticated techniques are now in development that can track protein products without mitigating their function, such as the addition of small sequences which will serve as binding motifs to monoclonal antibodies.

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