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How does genetic engineering help us?

Submitted by: esyme


Expert response from Dr. Elizabeth Bates

Head of Seed & Trait Safety, Bayer

Tuesday, 01/26/2016 15:12

Summary: Biotechnology is implemented in multiple fields from medicine, to industrial biosciences to agriculture. Through genetic engineering, scientists have already provided substantial benefits to humans like the treatment of certain diseases, addressing environmental issues and the production of food and energy.

Genetic engineering is part of a toolbox, developed from naturally-occurring processes, used by researchers to develop transgenic organisms.  (these organisms have an altered genomic sequence that allows them the ability to express novel or altered proteins). These altered organisms could be used in many ways to benefit humans. For instance, as a research tool: mice engineered to simulate a human genetic disease, which can then be used to develop novel remedies. Or the organisms can be used to produce molecules of benefit to humans.

Medical Benefits from Genetic Engineering

One of the first cases of human benefit from genetic engineering was the production of human insulin in bacterial cells. Previous to this, diabetic patients were treated with pig insulin. Use of bacterially-derived human insulin has substantially reduced the number of animals used to produce insulin and also significantly reduces adverse reactions in diabetic patients as the molecule is identical to human insulin. Since the successful production of genetically engineered insulin, many other human proteins have been produced in this manner. This technology has improved millions of lives.

More recently it has become possible to develop therapeutic molecules that can target diseases such as cancer by genetic engineering of naturally-occurring antibodies. These antibodies may have toxic molecules attached to kill cancer cells, or may be modified to improve their sticking to the cancer cells and activating the patient’s own immune system to destroy the cancer.

Industrial Benefits from Genetic Engineering

Industrial biotechnology leads to improved processes by the production of biological molecules, such as enzymes. An example of this is the production of rennin, a key ingredient for cheese-making. Rennin is produced in the stomachs of young animals to digest milk and is useful in the production of curds for cheese. Rennin was originally isolated from calf stomach; however it is now almost exclusively produced by engineered micro-organisms. 

Agricultural (Green) Benefits from Genetic Engineering

Green Biotechnology covers the use of modern plant breeding techniques, as well as genetic engineering of plants. The most frequently genetically modified crops are corn (maize) and soybeans. Crops are genetically modified to allow higher yields due to the production of molecules that are toxic to insect pests, but have no effect on animals and humans. These crops are not devoured by insect pests, and lead to higher incomes for farmers due to better crop yield and lowered use of chemical pesticides. Crops that are resistant to herbicides can also provide higher yield as the farmer can reduce the number of competing weed species in the field. Higher yields are important as the world population grows, and lowered use of insecticides has been shown to be beneficial to biodiversity - where many different kinds of plants and animals exist in an environment. Future potential for genetic engineering of crop plants could influence the yield of the plant, require less water or increase nutrient content. For example ‘Golden’ rice produces higher levels of a vitamin A precursor. This rice could be used as a food source in parts of the world where the major source of food does not contain enough vitamin A, and where this lack of vitamin A leads to blindness.

What the Future Holds

Our increased knowledge of genomes over the last 5 years, coupled with new techniques in genetic engineering allow very precise modification of genes and could be used to drive specific changes for individuals. One potential for this is to reverse gene mutations that lead to disease. These techniques could be used to provide relief for patients with debilitating genetic conditions when cells could be isolated for example from the blood, the genetic defect corrected and then the cells replaced in the body. Doctors now believe that genetic immune defects or muscle-wasting diseases could be treated in this way, with the advantage that the patients are treated with their own cells and would not require the heavy drug regimens associated with heart or kidney transplants.

Genetic engineering has already provided substantial benefits to humans as a result of the treatment of certain diseases and the production of food and energy. Further improvements in technologies and better understanding of the mechanisms will in the future provide increasing potential for development of processes that increase human well-being.