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The Truth Behind Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering has been a hot topic in Biology for years. We’ve all seen the photos of animals that can glow in the dark and heard about Dolly the Sheep, but how much do we really know about genetic engineering?

While we might hear ‘genetic engineering’ and think of scientists in labs, cutting out sections of DNA and replacing them, the reality is that genetic engineering is a lot older than that. It first dates to 12 000 BCE, when humans started the process of artificial selection, which is essentially just choosing specific animals or plants to breed with each other, to influence their offspring. For example, all dogs descend from wolves, but generations of selective breeding have led them to have widely varying appearances and characteristics. Another example is Brassica Oleracea. This is a plant, which over hundreds of years, has given rise to lots of different vegetables: brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale.

But genetic engineering has come a long way in 14 000 years, and it’s a lot more prevalent in your life than you might think. A lot of crops are genetically modified to be more resistant to disease, to reduce the need for pesticides. Certain fruits which have almost been wiped out by specific diseases exist in pretty much one variety. For example, the papaya, which was almost wiped out by the ringspot virus, was genetically modified to be resistant to this and is now called the ‘rainbow papaya’.

In other cases, fruits may be modified to be more appealing. Pink pineapple has been created using genetic engineering techniques. The fruit was modified to have a pink color by introducing genes from other plants, which resulted in the production of lycopene, a natural pigment that gives the pineapple its distinctive color. The pink pineapple was developed to be more visually appealing and to offer a new and unique product to consumers.

Additionally, genetic engineering can be used to produce hormones vital to human life. Genetic engineering is used to produce insulin by inserting the human insulin gene into bacteria or yeast. The gene is first isolated from human DNA and then inserted into the DNA of the bacteria or yeast using a vector, which is a piece of DNA that can carry the gene into the host cell. The host cell then uses the gene to produce insulin, which can be harvested and purified for use as a medication.

So clearly, genetic engineering is very prevalent in our lives, perhaps more than we might think. But what about animals?

Well, animal genetic engineering is much more in experimental stages, but there are definitely still examples of animal genetics being artificially manipulated. Fluorescent fish have been genetically engineered, patented and trademarked as GloFish. GloFish are genetically modified zebrafish that have been altered to produce fluorescent colors. This was achieved by introducing genes for fluorescent proteins from jellyfish and sea coral into the zebrafish genome. The resulting fish are brightly colored, and are sold as pets.

Livestock are also being genetically modified in some cases, whilst much less commonly than crops. The genetic modification of cattle is used to produce leaner meat. This is done by introducing a gene called "myostatin" which inhibits muscle growth. By reducing the amount of myostatin, cattle can produce more muscle tissue, resulting in leaner meat.

So really, we probably interact with a lot more GMOs (genetically modified organisms) than we would realise! With rising populations and consumerism, there are a lot of industrial benefits to genetic engineering. Whether it's increasing the rate at which an organism grows or changing its colour to make it more appealing, more and more is becoming possible with the power of science.

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