Creating frankensteins or fantastic futures?
How the strange new science of genetic enginneering is dramatically changing the way we view life itself
Panditji has come to the railway station today to receive his niece Shreya. He is excited because he is meeting her for the first time in 12 years! The train arrives, and scores of people start getting off it. Pandit ji spots Shreya standing amidst the crowd, looking lost, and goes to her.
Pandit ji: Hello Shreya! How are you?
Shreya: Oh Pandit ji! I’m fine, how are you? How did you spot me so quickly among so many people?
Pandit ji: Oh you look exactly like your grandmother – as fair, with the same curly locks… And these hazel brown eyes… like your father. It obviously flows in your family. I just hope you do not have his temper.
Shreya: Hahahaha! I think not, Pandit ji.
Pandit ji: There you go again! Your laugh is unmistakably like your grandmother.
Shreya: I know. Actually, everybody tells me that I’m so much like my granny. At least I now know how she looked when she was young. But Pandit ji, isn’t it kind of strange that I resemble her so closely?
Pandit ji: It is not strange at all. It’s in your genes. Your genes decide all your physical traits, and pass them through generations. In fact they do much, much more…
Yes Shreya, genes determine how we are – we have curly hair or straight, we are fair or dark, we are tall or short, we have freckles or not, how we behave, what we like or dislike and even what disease we might be prone to! And it’s not just human beings who have genes. All plants and animals have genes too. So what are these genes?
Cells are the structural and functional unit of all known living organisms. So how do they know what their tasks are? Say, how does a cell in our inner nose know it has to support smelling and not hearing? Well, it gets instructions – just like we do when we perform– telling it what its role is in the functioning of the human body.
These instructions with all the necessary information lie in the nucleus (core) of every cell.
Each nucleus of a human cell has 23 pairs or 46 chromosomes. Chromosomes act as cases for a molecule (chemical compound) called DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid), which stores all the instructions. Are you wondering how molecules can store so much of information?
Well, DNA molecules are made of two twisting, paired strands called Double Helix. They look like twisted ladders! And the ladder’s rungs are made of four-letter DNA alphabet (chemical units, called nucleotide bases):
Adenine (A), Thymine (T),
which pair specifically: an A always pairs with a T and a C always pairs with a G.
Now, these alphabets make words:
Thus, a cell is “told” what it has to do! This is how our nose cells know that they have to work with other cells in the group to smell (and not to hear). Do you know what these sentences are called, Shreya? GENES.
Ms. A Gene: Hi Shreya! I’m A Gene.
I have around 30,000 to 35,000 siblings in each cell. We tell cells to make molecules called Proteins. Cells copy our information, base by base, into new strands of messenger RiboNucleic Acid (mRNA). These mRNA travel out of the nucleus into the cytoplasm, to cell organelles called Ribosomes. Here, they direct amino acids to form protein molecules.
Hi Shreya, I’m Protein. Twenty different types of amino acids combine to create me. I make up body structures like tissue and organs, control chemical reactions (as enzyme), carry signals between cells (as hormone), and act as antibody to protect from foreign particles like viruses and bacteria.
A genome is all the genetic information of an individual. Each cell in the body contains the complete genome. Genomes (i.e., DNA sequences) differ slightly between individuals of the same species, and a little bit more between genomes of closely related species, yet even more between distantly related species.
Exact DNA sequence of an individual is genotype. The collection of all observable and measurable traits of that individual is phenotype.
Genetics is the science of heredity (the way we inherit the physical traits and characteristics of our parents) and variation in living organisms.
Genetics was born in 1856, when an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel performed a series of experiments on pea plants, and discovered the laws of heredity. Although Mendel published a paper on his work, the 19th century scientific community ignored it. Today, he is revered as the ‘father of modern genetics’
>> MOLECULAR BIOLOGY: It is a branch of biology that works to identify and characterise the properties, structures and functions of the molecular elements that are essential to life and are related to heredity (such as DNA, RNA and proteins). It overlaps with genetics and biochemistry (the study of chemical processes in living organisms).
>> GENETIC ENGINEERING: It is the ability to manipulate (alter) the genes of an organism to produce a given protein or obtain organisms that have a desired trait. Example: producing crops (genetically modified) that can resist pest and bacteria infection.
>> BIOTECHNOLOGY: It is a technique that uses live organisms to help produce things that are essential for human survival, such as food, chemicals and services. Example: the use of yeast to make bread. We can do some incredible things with genes. We can use them to create ‘desired’ traits or qualities in crops, livestock, and even humans! Besides producing useful chemicals, antibodies, and a host of other stuff.
Genes at work
Here’s some of the innumerous uses and applications of genes
Agriculture: Much of the food we eat are in some way connected to genes. [Do you know most modern and ancient wheat breeds are hybrids – genetically modified/engineered?]. Genetically modified crops can help increase food production in many ways. For instance, genes that increase the yield of crops can be introduced. Or plants that grow in poor soil or to resist disease, bad weather, and pest damage can be engineered into crops that are now susceptible to these causes. Moreover, livestock can be genetically engineered to produce more meat, to reproduce more often, to survive in extreme climates, or to have
Industry: The ability of bacteria to produce chemicals (thanks to their genes) can be used in various industries. Like manufacturing cheese and beer. Use of protein engineering is another application of genes in industries. Spotted detergent boxes with “biologically active enzymes”written on them? The enzyme Subtilisin is a protease (a protein-digesting protein) produced by bacteria, with specificity for proteins that commonly soil clothing. Detergent manufacturers added it to improve the efficiency of laundry detergents. Remember this the next time you do your laundry... The forensic industry uses genes to identify individuals using samples of their DNA (from hair or toothbrush or clothes). The technique is called genetic fingerprinting.
Environment: : Genes can help remove pollutants from the environment. Genetically modified organisms and plants are put on the job. Bacteria that metabolise oil have already been used in cleaning ocean oil spills. The mining industry also uses bacteria in extracting metals, like gold and copper, from their ores (bioleaching). And genes (through biotechnology) recycle, treat waste, and clean up sites contaminated by industrial activities (bioremediation).
There is more. Bacteria and plants can be induced to take in heavy metals from contaminated soil and water, which can
Medicine: Genes are (also) responsible for determining the diseases we would be susceptible to, or inherit. So, by knowing which gene is responsible for a given disease, doctors and scientists can now pre-empt the ailments and develop treatments. So, next time you catch a cold, your doctor might just change your gene and save you from falling ill again! Many researchers also study abnormal, disease-causing proteins and enzymes for the same purpose. Several medicines, procedures, and useful chemicals are available only because of genes.
The first genetically engineered medicine was synthetic human insulin. Now, there is a genetically engineered vaccine for the lethal Hepatitis B. Genetic testing (the direct examination of the DNA molecule for determining sex, and so on), gene therapy (the insertion of genes into cells and tissues to treat diseases, including hereditary diseases and diabetes), and pharmacogenomics (the study of how the genes affect a body’s response to drugs, and to produce medicines that are adapted to each person’s genetic makeup) are all based on the study of genes. This is just the beginning. Our “gene technology” is still in its infancy.
Hey Shreya, have you seen the movie ‘X-men’? If yes, you surely remember Wolverine/Logan – a mutant with metal blades in his hands. His most fascinating feature was his ‘healing factor’ – his ability to heal without any medicine. Cool, isn’t it? Now, what if you could do the same? Or how about if you never ever catch flu again? Great relief from the wheezing and coughing, right? Well, genes can actually make these happen! They can actually make super heroes and heroines out of you. Let’s see how…
Tweaking DNA to produce desired results may take hundreds of research years per project, the result being a work of art rather than an engineering construct.
The Art and Science of life
A portrait of your own DNA
How about a portrait of the Southern Blot of your own DNA? Thanks to DNA 11, Inc., an Ottawa, Ontario based company, this is now possible. The company will send you a swab to scoop some cells from inside your cheek, and in return you get to create a one-of-a-kind artwork that you can hang on your wall
We are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences
BIO ART is a new art form that has emerged from the cultural impact and increasing accessibility of contemporary biotechnology.
Bio art manipulates the processes of life; in its most radical form, it invents or transforms living organisms. It is not representational; bio art is in vivo. The creations of bio art become a part of evolution and, provided they are capable of reproduction, can last as long as life exists on earth. Thus, bio art raises unprecedented questions about the future of life, evolution, society, and art.
According to researchers, edible meat can be grown in a lab on industrial scale. In 1936, Winston Churchil, a carnivore to the core, predicted that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Today, growing meat in the lab still seems the stuff of science fiction, but reality is not far behind.
A Controversial transgenic art project called “GFP Bunny” by Chicago artist Eduardo Kac. The project not only comprises the creation of the fluorescent rabbit, but also the public dialogue generated by the project and the integration of the transgenic animal into society.
“GFP Bunny” has raised many ethical questions and sparked an international controversy about whether Alba should be considered art at all.
“Transgenic art brings out a debate on important social issues surrounding genetics that are affecting and will affect everyone’s lives decades to come,” Kac is quoted as saying.
Alba, transgenic glowing bunny
with jelly fish genes: Born 2000, Died 2004 age 4 instead of 12
International biological art exhibition” L’art Biotech’ in Nantes, France March 2003.
“Living Entities are categorised as food or pets. These divisions are not always clear, and we must practice some kind of hypocrisy in order to be able to love and respect living things as well as to eat them. An attempt is made to grow frog skeletal muscle over biopolymer for potential food consumption.
A biopsy taken from an animal, which will continue to live and be displayed in the gallery along side the growing “steak”. This installation culminates in a “feast”. Potentially this work presents a future in which there will be meat (or protein rich food) for vegetarians and the killing and suffering of animals destined for food consumption will be reduced. This new palette of manipulation is significantly linked to ethical concerns and emerging philosophical perplexities.”
A new area of research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build (“synthesise”) novel biological functions and systems.
Synthetic Biology is a discipline that is possible because of numerous advances in microbiology and computational biology over the past 30 years – breakthroughs that gave rise to genetic engineering and sequencing of the human genome. Genetic engineering came into form during the 1970s when scientists in the US developed recombinant technology for modifying an organism’s DNA. They later went on to form Genentech, currently the largest biotech company in existence. In the past three decades, the ability to elucidate new characteristics within bacteria and plants has produced good and bad results. On one hand, biotech companies have created many new drugs produced by genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
In fact, the insulin used throughout the United States today is a GMO product. On the other hand, both GMOs tailored for environmental use and genetically engineered plants have been met with much resistance due to their unknown impact on human health.
GMO or OMG?
Genetically Modified Organism or Oh.My.God!
Why we need to be cautious while harnessing the power of biotechnology
Ms. A Gene: Well yes, there are some apprehensions about our use. Like widespread crop failure after using Genetically Modified seeds. All GM crops have identical genetic structure. So if a fungus, a virus, or a pest attacks a particular GM crop, the entire area gets affected.
Pandit ji: GM seeds assure high yield. But only if they are fortified with specific pesticides and fertilisers. Also, these seeds are bio-engineered to be purchased every year, as they last only one harvest. This means they cannot be reused the next year, ultimately increasing the input costs of the farmers.
Mr. Protein: And contrary to the claim of pest resistance of some of seeds, they actually require pesticides. Cotton farmers in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, were encouraged to go for higher-yield cotton. While it is not clear if the yield actually increased, the farmers spent much more on irrigation, and pesticides and fertilisers.
Pandit ji: There is yet another fear – of cross-pollination. Genetically altered seeds can be carried into neighbouring fields by wind, birds or insects, which can cross-pollinate with genetically natural crops. This can pose a great threat to biodiversity. Also, GM organisms may destroy their natural (wild) relatives, which are weaker, and cause changes in the ecological balance.
Mr. Protein: The safety of GM food has not been tested on a long-term basis. There might be unforeseen allergens in GM foods. Or say, a fresh-looking food item might be several weeks old and have little nutritional worth, and you would never even know.
Pandit ji: Genetic engineering can cause unexpected mutations in an organism, which can create various toxins. And if genetically engineered organisms, bacteria and viruses were released into the environment it would be impossible to contain them.
Shreya: Oh it is like Frankenstein in making!
Pandit ji: And what if someone wants a patent for this Frankenstein? Patents give inventors an exclusive right (for 20 years or so) towards utilising his/her invention, in exchange for making it public. Living organisms in general were not “patent-able” because no one ‘invented’ them. But if a person genetically engineers an organism, he may claim a patent. This is legal, and many companies are attracted to the world of genes for earning profits...
Ms. A Gene: There’s more… Our use is also debated on ethical or Bio-ethical grounds! It raises question about creation of new life forms and crossing species boundaries, long-term effects on human health and the environment. There may be unforeseen personal, social, and cultural consequences. Bioethicists believe that the use of genes will blur the lines between species by creating transgenic combinations (organisms with genes of other species, like use of pig’s genes in human body), and will create physical or behavioural traits that may be different from “human”. The chimeric entity may possess special features and intelligence. So, should they be given rights and special protections? The whole definition of “normal” might change. Some even argue that crossing species boundaries is immoral, and in violation of God’s laws.
Shreya: Should we just stop experimenting with genes?
Pandit ji: Not at all, Shreya. The main problem with using genes is that we still don’t understand them. The workings of a single cell are too complex. There is a vast gap between what we know about genes and their actual potential. Genes present an exciting range of possibilities, from feeding the hungry to preventing and treating seemingly incurable diseases. However, there is always a risk. But the power of genes – if used responsibly – can alter the face of development and human society.