GENETIC ENGINEERING: Redrawing the Blueprint of Life - Introduction

potatoes and corn

Figure 1. Crops that produce their own pesticides as they grow have been among the first practical developments of genetic engineering.

normal and genetically-engineered cotton

Figure 2. The large boll on the left comes from a cotton plant that was genetically engineered to fend off damaging insect pests. The boll on the right is from an unaltered plant that has been attacked by insects.

Imagine that we could put an end to some of the most crippling diseases and disabilities with which children are born. Imagine, too, that we could create new animals and plants to help solve some of the world's most urgent problems. Cows might be altered to produce life-saving drugs in their milk. Tiny organisms might be made that could convert garbage into fuel. Or new types of plants might be grown that could absorb more carbon dioxide from the air and so help prevent global warming.


Although breakthroughs such as these would once have seemed impossible, they are now close to becoming real. Over the last 50 years, scientists have learned a great deal about the chemical changes taking place inside living things. They have deciphered the code by which animals and plants pass on their characteristics to their offspring. They have even learned how to alter that code to produce life-forms with new characteristics. The means by which they are able to do this is known as GENETIC ENGINEERING.


Through genetic engineering we shall soon be able to provide much better treatments, and possibly even cures, for certain serious diseases. We shall be able to create new kinds of life, or altered versions of existing animals and plants, for medical and industrial use, or for improving the environment. But although this powerful new tool promises to do much that is good, it also presents some dangers.


Our bodies are able to fight back against many of the disease-causing organisms found in nature, but we might have no resistance to a completely new germ that has been genetically engineered. There is the risk that such germs might be released before their long-term effects have become properly understood.


Another concern is that some people might want to "design" their own babies. They might want to use genetic engineering to determine details of their child's future appearance. Today, governments around the world are trying to decide on the rules that future genetic engineers will have to follow.


In the following pages we will look at how the instructions needed to build a new individual are stored inside every animal and plant. We will learn about the complex chemical known as DNA and how it is arranged in working units called GENES. We will see how scientists have managed to identify the purpose of certain genes and how they are now able to make changes to genes in the laboratory. Finally, we will look at some of the possible benefits and problems that genetic engineering may bring.