What is genetic engineering and how does it work?

What is genetic engineering?
Genetic engineering is the process of manually adding new DNA to an organism. The goal is to add one or more new traits that are not already found in that organism. Examples of genetically engineered (transgenic) organisms currently on the market include plants with resistance to some insects, plants that can tolerate herbicides, and crops with modified oil content.

Understanding Genetic Engineering: Basic Biology
To understand how genetic engineering works, there are a few key biology concepts that must be understood.

CONCEPT #1: What is DNA?
DNA is the recipe for life. DNA is a molecule found in the nucleus of every cell and is made up of 4 subunits represented by the letters A, T, G, and C. The order of these subunits in the DNA strand holds a code of information for the cell. Just like the English alphabet makes up words using 26 letters, the genetic language uses 4 letters to spell out the instructions for how to make the proteins an organism will need to grow and live.

Small segments of DNA are called genes. Each gene holds the instructions for how to produce a single protein. This can be compared to a recipe for making a food dish. A recipe is a set of instructions for making a single dish.

An organism may have thousands of genes. The set of all genes in an organism is called a genome. A genome can be compared to a cookbook of recipes that makes that organism what it is. Every cell of every living organism has a cookbook.

CONCEPT #2: Why are proteins important?
Proteins do the work in cells. They can be part of structures (such as cell walls, organelles, etc). They can regulate reactions that take place in the cell. Or they can serve as enzymes, which speed-up reactions. Everything you see in an organism is either made of proteins or the result of a protein action.

CONCEPT #3: How is DNA important in genetic engineering?
DNA is a ‘universal language’, meaning the genetic code means the same thing in all organisms. It would be like if all cookbooks around the world were written in a single language that everyone knew. This characteristic is critical to the success of genetic engineering. When a gene for a desirable trait is taken from one organism and inserted into another, it gives the ‘recipient’ organism the ability to express that same trait.

How is genetic engineering done?
Genetic engineering, also called transformation, works by physically removing a gene from one organism and inserting it into another, giving it the ability to express the trait encoded by that gene. It is like taking a single recipe out of a cookbook and placing it into another cookbook.

The process: Once a goal is in mind…

1) First, find an organism that naturally contains the desired trait.

2) The DNA is extracted from that organism. This is like taking out the entire cookbook.

3) The one desired gene (recipe) must be located and copied from thousands of genes that were extracted. This is called gene cloning.

4) The gene may be modified slightly to work in a more desirable way once inside the recipient organism.


5) The new gene(s), called a transgene is delivered into cells of the recipient organism. This is called transformation. The most common transformation technique uses a bacteria that naturally genetically engineer plants with its own DNA. The transgene is inserted into the bacteria, which then delivers it into cells of the organism being engineered. Another technique, called the gene gun method, shoots microscopic gold particles coated with copies of the transgene into cells of the recipient organism. With either technique, genetic engineers have no control over where or if the transgene inserts into the genome. As a result, it takes hundreds of attempts to achieve just a few transgenic organisms.

6) Once a transgenic organism has been created, traditional breeding is used to improve the characteristics of the final product. So genetic engineering does not eliminate the need for traditional breeding. It is simply a way to add new traits to the pool.

How does genetic engineering compare to traditional breeding?
Although the goal of both genetic engineering and traditional plant breeding is to improve an organism’s traits, there are some key differences between them.

While genetic engineering manually moves genes from one organism to another, traditional breeding moves genes through mating, or crossing, the organisms in hopes of obtaining offspring with the desired combination of traits.

genetic engineering

Using the recipe analogy, traditional breeding is like taking two cookbooks and combining every other recipe from each into one cookbook. The product is a new cookbook with half of the recipes from each original book. Therefore, half of the genes in the offspring of a cross come from each parent.

Traditional breeding is effective in improving traits, however, when compared with genetic engineering, it does have disadvantages. Since breeding relies on the ability to mate two organisms to move genes, trait improvement is basically limited to those traits that already exist within that species. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, physically removes the genes from one organism and places them into the other. This eliminates the need for mating and allows the movement of genes between organisms of any species. Therefore, the potential traits that can be used are virtually unlimited.

traditional breeding

Breeding is also less precise than genetic engineering. In breeding, half of the genes from each parent are passed on to the offspring. This may include many undesirable genes for traits that are not wanted in the new organism. Genetic engineering, however, allows for the movement of a single, or a few, genes.

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