Genetic engineering is the modification of the basic code that defines each living thing. The technology may well lengthen and improve the lives of humans but it also comes with significant potential risks to the natural world. Join Active Minds as we trace the history and current uses of genetic engineering including the basics of how it works. We will also take a look at how this technology continues to evolve and the risks and benefits that may come with that.
Key Lecture Points
- For thousands of years, human beings have been changing the natural world around them. By purposefully cross breeding animal and vegetable matter (livestock and crops) for desired outcomes (heartier stock or preferred size or taste), humanity has created new breeds. All of these breeds continued forward via the natural process of regeneration.
- In the last 100 years, however, the emerging and accelerating science of genetics and genetic engineering has provided humanity with more precise and powerful tools to alter the genetic makeup of living organisms (including the human species itself).
- Beginning with Czech biologist Gregor Mendel (the so-called father of genetics) in 1866, humanity gained a scientific knowledge of the way that species acquire and pass on specific traits. Subsequent scientific study found that the traits were conveyed via a substance in living cells called DNA.
- In 1953, British scientists Frances Crick and James Watson, utilizing the work of under appreciated contributor Rosalind Franklin, show that DNA has a double-stranded helical structure. All living things (from single cell bacteria to humans) have DNA that determines their characteristics. Beginning in 1988 the US government funded the Human Genome Project which as of 2022 has nearly completed the mapping of the genetic sequence of the human species.
- By the 1970s scientists had discovered and harnessed recombinant DNA. Created through the combination of elements of DNA from different organisms, rDNA replicates after being artificially introduced into another organism. This is the beginning of genetic engineering.
- In the 1980s, scientists began utilize genetic engineering toward real-world applications, first applying rDNA technology to bacteria (like E. coli) so that the it produces a desired protein, such as insulin. Later, the engineering was used to modify the genetic structure of more complex life forms: plants and animals.
- In 2012, a new tool in genetic engineering was discovered: a bacterial enzyme called CRISPR. First studied by Spanish scientist Francisco Mojica, it was American Jennifer Doudna and French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier who showed that CRISPR could be used for precise editing of genomes. In combination with rapidly advancing gene sequencing, CRISPR has accelerated the science of genetic engineering in medicine and agriculture.
- The technology of Genetic Engineering, however promising, also presents significant moral, ethical, economic and environmental questions. As the science is still very young, many skeptics are concerned about the potential adverse impacts the technology might have.
- Do you see genetic engineering as a positive indication of the capacity of science to create a better world? Or an over-reach by humans, unprepared for the consequences of a powerful technology that could negatively affect the world?
- What do you think would be the best way to properly regulate genetic engineering at the national and international level?
- Do the changes that Genetic Engineering might provide outweigh the potential for unforeseen negative consequences?
- Have you (or someone you know) been a beneficiary of genetic engineering in medicine? If so, how did you feel undergoing the therapy?
- Does the consumption of genetically modified food concern you? Or do you feel that it is a non-issue in your diet?
More to Explore
Books For Further Reading
- Metzl, Jamie, Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, Sourcebooks Inc., Napierville, IL, 2019. 327 pages. Metzl provides a groundbreaking exploration of the many ways genetic-engineering is shaking the core foundations of our lives--sex, war, love, and death.”
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- Greely, Henry T, CRISPR People: The Science and Ethics of Editing Humans. MIT Press, 2021. 400 pages. Greely, the Director of the Stanford University Center for Law and the Biosciences tells the story of the Chinese scientist He Jiankui, the only person to have conducted an experiment on the germline of the human species that resulted in the birth of genetically altered humans.
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