Genetic Engineering or Gene Editing Technology (GET) was improvised as a method of inducing new genetic elements into organisms. Research had been conducted ever since the 1970s. It is only in the last ten years that significant developments in this field have revolutionized many aspects of the medical sciences, mostly healthcare. From a peculiar time when a majority of people did not have access to basic services, we are living in a time when even age-old mishaps like crop failures can be modulated with the induction of genetic changes. Or complex transplantation processes like xenotransplantation are feasible. Now, we do want to know how these modifications are taking place, right? Let’s get into the details:
Gene Editing: The Process
Although pioneered back in the 1990s, when its utility was still not common, a major development came into focus when a Chinese researcher made the shocking revelation in late 2018 that he had altered the genes of twin girls, thus preventing them from contracting HIV.
Gene, or genome, editing, is a group of technologies that scientists are implementing to modify an organism’s DNA. In layman’s terms, it is similar to cutting and pasting a portion of DNA, thus altering the characteristics of the organism. This edited section is either modified or replaced in this particular genetic engineering technique. Specific sites are located and targeted in the host genome to enable the change.
How Does Gene Editing Work?
Various kinds of editing techniques have evolved and garnered popularity in the last couple of years. But one such tool that has single-handedly managed to stay at the top spot for its astounding applications is the CRISPR-CAS9 technology. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR is a genome editing methodology that is conceptualized upon replicating natural defense mechanisms in bacteria to give a blow against external virus attacks. It uses a protein known as Cas9, which acts as a pair of scissors to cut off that specific section in the targeted DNA strand that needs to be deleted or modified. Since a broken strand has its own immunity and attempts to self-repair are initiated, it is at this stage that the desired genetic sequence is supplied by the scientists that attach themselves to the broken strand.
Apart from CRISPR, other techniques like Zinc Finger Nuclease (ZFN) and Transcription Activator-like Effector Nucleases (TALENs) have also been in use.
Application Of Gene Editing In Various Fields
Genetic editing has seen advances in agriculture in processes like augmenting plant yield, building pest resistance, multiplying crop varieties and wild species domestication. If utilized properly, it has immense potential to change the food security challenges and improve agricultural performances that humankind is currently facing.
Genome editing techniques are in such high demand, mainly due to their ability to devise treatments for grave diseases like cancer, sickle cell anemia, and HIV. In this case, the targeted cells are the T cells that work towards recognizing the cancer cells. Blood disorders have also been rectified using this technology in China, making remarkable progress in this field.
In another event of therapeutic cloning that occurred last year, a major event—a genetically-edited pig heart transplanted into a human—was made for the very first time. This means even human disabilities can be amended with the appropriate utilization of this tool.
CRISPR has witnessed major applications in industry to make bacterial cultures for cheese production. Thus, food production can also be increased if the food quality is maintained.
Researchers have worked on improving soldiers’ performance in the military by making them resistant to enemy chemical or biological warfare.
Is Gene Editing Controversial?
There are huge concerns regarding the uses of this advanced technological tool, given the ethical dilemmas related to modifying natural processes are significant. It is estimated that around 24 percent of people in the world are carriers of genetic defects. Even the slightest of errors can have an adverse impact on targets. So safety concerns are prevalent. Side effects like allergic reactions to modified crops are not uncommon.
Although there are expectations that these tools are creating a revolution in the agricultural, health, etc. sectors, still the processes are extremely costly to be actually implemented on a large scale. Only wealthy parents can afford to pay hefty amounts to make drastic modifications to their faulty offspring. It can be said that genome editing techniques are rich people’s tools. And, of course, one can’t have a world full of cloned people, all genetically modified to look their best. Manipulated processes should be in check!
There have been rounds of discussions among members of the scientific community in the United States as well as globally on how to proceed with the available tools and technologies. Genetic editing tools are mostly in infancy in terms of their prevalent application, especially in developing countries, where technological advances are gradually spreading their wings out. With continuous trial and error, technological services are penetrating the interiors of geographies. Also, the research done on this genre is not so abundant yet. Thus, practicing such powerful modifications should be put under constant scrutiny.
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