Genetic engineering is a technology in molecular biology that uses recombinant DNA technology to manipulate genetic materials. The technology aims to construct customized proteins or modify the working of biological systems, which leads to the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The application of genetic engineering has improved and developed new techniques and technologies that advance our understanding of biological phenomena and elevate our well-being.[1-2]

However, there are a few concerns, such as ethical issues and the safety of genetically modified foods about the technology. This article discusses the benefits of genetic engineering alongside its application with the problems and risks associated with it.

What is Genetic Engineering?

Genetic engineering involves combining biochemistry and molecular biology techniques that start with the isolation of the genetic materials, followed by molecular cloning. It ends when GMOs, the organisms possessing recombinant DNA, are created.

Briefly, genetic engineering involves:[1]

1. Isolation of the genetic materials

The purpose of this process is to acquire genetic molecules from the organism of interest. Depending on the end-use, the genetic material can be DNA isolated from the organism of interest or ribonucleic acids (RNA) extracted from the tissues or cells of interest.

Isolated RNAs are reverse-transcribed to generate complementary DNA (cDNA) molecules. This strategy is useful when dealing with mRNAs of genes that need some form of post-transcriptional modifications for their expression.          

2. Molecular cloning

This process involves cutting, assembling, amplifying, and introducing the recombinant DNA into the host organisms. It consists of the following steps:

2.1. DNA fragmentation

This step serves to single out the region of interest by eliminating non-target DNA molecules from the target ones. Traditionally, DNA fragmentation uses restriction enzymes, also known as restriction endonucleases, to cut the DNA at specific sequences into fragments.

It may also involve using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique to modify or edit the nucleotide sequences of the target region. PCR or the digested fragments are separated by gel electrophoresis and subsequently purified for the next step.

2.2. DNA ligation

In this step, the prepared DNA fragments join with a vector, a DNA molecule serving as a DNA-importing vehicle. The success of this step requires that both ends of the purified fragments possess sequences recognizable by the same restriction enzymes that cut in the multiple cloning site of the vector.

The enzyme DNA ligase catalyzes the joining of DNA fragments to the digested vector, creating the recombinant DNA.

2.3. Transformation of recombinant DNA

This step introduces the constructed recombinant DNA into cells of the host organism, allowing it to be taken up and expressed. Transformation can occur using physical transformation approaches such as heat-shock transformation and electroporation or chemical transformation.

3. Multiplication of host cells and recombinant protein expression

Host cells possessing the recombinant DNA are selected based on the selectable marker gene contained in the vector.

After selection, the host organisms can be cultured under the selective condition to increase the number of cells containing the recombinant DNA. The induction of the recombinant DNA expression results in the recombinant proteins.

Benefits of Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering technology has been a springboard for developing new techniques and technologies that bring about the advancement of science and improve human welfare. The following are some of the advantages of genetic engineering and examples of real-world applications:

1. Enhancement of existing laboratory techniques

Genetic engineering is not a stand-alone technology, but it has improved and enhanced existing laboratory techniques. DNA sequencing technology is one of the laboratory techniques that became more powerful when recombinant DNA technology was incorporated into its workflow.[2]

For instance:

1.1. Sanger sequencing

Sanger sequencing is a chain-termination DNA sequencing technique that uses dideoxynucleotides to terminate the synthesizing DNA chains. At the start of the reaction, oligonucleotides anneal to the complementary DNA sequences before the chain synthesis and termination occur.

The priming of oligonucleotides limits the sequencing of DNA fragments to only those with partially known DNA sequences. With molecular cloning, the ligation of the target DNA fragment to vectors at the site where the DNA sequences are known can overcome this limitation.

By doing so, oligonucleotides can anneal to the complementary region in the vector, enabling the sequencing of the unknown DNA fragment joined to the vector.[2] 

1.2. Large-scale DNA sequencing

Large-scale DNA sequencing, also known as shotgun DNA sequencing, is a DNA sequencing technique that accommodates long DNA fragments.

For example, in the early phase of the Human Genome Project, DNA is randomly broken and cloned into a bacteriophage sequencing vector, M13. This results in a library of clones containing the recombinant DNA.

The clones are randomly selected and sequenced until no new identical recombinant DNA appears. The repeated clones are pooled and hybridized in the library to mark and eliminate clones containing DNA fragments identical to those already sequenced.

This way, only the clones processing different DNA fragments are sequenced, and the covered region can be expanded.[3]

2. Comprehensive understanding of biological phenomena

Apart from enhancing existing laboratory techniques, GMOs such as bacterial cells expressing recombinant proteins and transgenic animals have given scientists the tools to dissect, analyze, and describe several biological phenomena. These phenomena include the underlying cause of genetic diseases and disease pathology.

For example:

2.1. Gaucher Disease

Gaucher disease (GD) is an inherited genetic disorder most prevalent in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. In GD patients, glucocerebroside, a type of glycolipids in the lysosome, is excessively accumulated. This is because of deficiencies in glucocerebrosidase (EC, the enzyme that usually degrades it.

Molecular cloning and sequencing of the gene encoding glucocerebrosidase, the alleles, and the neighboring region have enabled researchers to understand the change in the enzyme activity and its relationship to clinical manifestations of the disease.[4]

2.2. Spike Proteins

The spike proteins of severe acute respiratory syndrome and the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronaviruses (SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, respectively) play a role in the virus entry into host cells. This knowledge stemmed from experiments that used recombinant proteins containing variations of the spike proteins and potential host targets.

Biochemical and cell biology experiments using recombinant proteins revealed that spike proteins from SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV interact with specific host proteins and hijack their way into the host cells.[5-6]   

When a similar virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2), emerged at the end of 2019, cloning, sequencing, and PCR site-directed mutagenesis of the gene encoding its spike protein could identify the beneficial mutation that became fixed in the genome of the new virus.

SARS-CoV2 recombinant spike protein expression illustrated its structure, host target, and viral cell entry mechanism, providing insights into potential vaccination targets and treatment strategies.[7-9]  

2.3. Neurodegenerative Diseases

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s dementia, and Pick’s disease are associated with an accumulation of microtubule-associated protein tau in the mammalian nervous system.

The nature of their manifestations has made the disease’s mechanisms and tau dysfunctionality challenging to study. In this case, genetic engineering provides the answer to the challenge in the creation of transgenic animals.

Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila melanogaster, Xenopus oocytes, and mice have been genetically manipulated to express various levels and forms of tau.

Studies of changes in the nervous system, tau dynamics, and neurological disease development in these genetically modified (GM) animals improve the understanding of neurodegenerative diseases and bring us closer to early diagnostic approaches and therapeutic intervention.[10]

3. Development of new technologies

Not only can genetic engineering provide a better understanding of how biological systems work and respond, but it can also be a tool when the knowledge is used to create new technologies. 

Fluorescent protein technology is an example of a new technology built by genetic engineering. It started by discovering the green and red fluorescent proteins (GFP and RFP, respectively) in jellyfish and sea corals.

When exposed to the lights of a suitable wavelength, RFP and GFP are chromophores that emit fluorescence without any additional enzyme or cofactor. Cloning and sequencing of the genes encoding GFP and RFP provide information on the three-dimensional structure of the proteins, unveiling the formation of chromophores and the emission of fluorescence.

The findings permit scientists to use genetic engineering to manipulate the genes, hence creating the enhanced version of the proteins and changing the color of the chromophores. To date, the color palette of existing fluorescent proteins ranges in the blue-cyan, cyan-green, green, yellow, orange, red, and far-red spectra.

The same information also provided the basis for developing bimolecular fluorescence complementation (BiFC) assay, enabling scientists to confirm a protein-protein interaction and where the interaction occurs in living cells.[11-12]

4. Creation of new therapeutic approaches

Genetic engineering can use insights into the cause of a disease, its pathology, and its development to create new therapeutic approaches. Examples of these are:

4.1. Therapeutic Proteins

Therapeutic proteins are proteins used in replacement therapy to treat genetic disorders or certain medical conditions. Therapeutic proteins can be extracted from human or animal cells, semi-synthesized, or genetically engineered in host cells in the laboratory. Examples of therapeutic recombinant proteins are human growth hormone and glucocerebrosidase used in replacement therapy for dwarfism and Gaucher disease.[1,4]

4.2. Gene Therapy

Gene therapy refers to a therapeutic strategy that overrides the effect of a dysfunctional gene allele in patients. It does so by introducing the patient’s somatic cells to the functional allele of the gene or to the nucleic acids that modify the function of the defective allele.[1] 

In ex vivo gene therapy, the functional allele is inserted into the patient’s cells, and the transfected cells are transplanted back into the patient. One method is to use a viral vector vehicle to carry the functional gene into the cell. Here, genetic engineering replaces the viral genes involved in viral replication, or the nonessential genes, with the target gene.

In doing so, the viral vector cannot be replicated using the host machinery, and the protein of the inserted allele is created. The Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, Johnson and Johnson, and Convidecia COVID-19 vaccines are based on this method. Instead of a functional gene allele, a region from the viral spike protein is inserted into the vector and later translated as a target for antibody induction.[1,13] 

Alternatively, in vivo gene therapy directly delivers the gene products such as mRNA or short-interfering RNA (siRNA) to the patient’s cells. This method starts with constructing a recombinant DNA that contains the cDNA of interest in a vector of choice.

The recombinant DNA is subsequently transcribed in vitro by RNA polymerase, purified, modified, and packaged for injection into the patient.

The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and CureVac mRNA-based vaccines against SARS-CoV2 are developed based on this approach. Similar to the viral vector COVID-19 vaccines, a region of the spike protein is translated and used to elicit an immune response in the vaccinated person.[1,13]

5. Creation of characteristics not found in nature

The manipulation of DNA from different species can combine desirable features in one transgenic organism. GMOs can be engineered to display a combination of customized characteristics that are otherwise not producible by other means.

Notable examples of such GMOs or their products are:

5.1. Taliglucerase alfa

Taliglucerase alfa, marketed as Elelyso, is the first FDA-approved plant-based pharmaceutical drug. It is a recombinant human glucocerebrosidase intended for enzyme replacement therapy in Gaucher disease patients.

Carrot cells, which do not naturally possess glucocerebrosidase, were genetically manipulated to express the protein and signal peptides necessary for posttranslational modification.

The choice of a plant-based production system was based on the fact that most people afflicted with Gaucher disease follow a Kosher diet, which prohibits non-certified animals or animal by-products.[14]

5.2. Golden Rice

Golden Rice is the first transgenic plant genetically engineered to contain the entire beta-carotene biosynthesis pathway. Beta-carotene is a vitamin A precursor naturally produced in the leaf but not in the edible endosperm.

Genes encoding phytoene synthase from daffodils, carotene desaturase 1 and 2 from the bacterium Erwiniauredovora were cloned and constructed, and transferred to be expressed in the rice endosperm.

As the name suggests, golden rice produces yellow grains that are high in beta-carotene. It is thought that when consumed, beta-carotene in the grains can supplement vitamin A in the consumers. Since its inception, golden rice has been used as a parental line for several rice breeding programs.[1]

Issues and Risks of Genetic Engineering

Despite the pros of genetic engineering technology, its use remains debatable decades after the conception of the technology. The concerns over the use of genetic engineering revolve around the following issues:[1]   

  • Health safety in the consumption of food or products produced from GM crops, which are generally engineered to contain antibiotic or pesticide resistance genes.
  • Ecological and environmental concerns over the cultivation of GM crops, which are based on the possibility of horizontal gene transfer and loss of genetic diversity.
  • Ethical issues over the welfare of animals used as experimental models and used in breeding programs.
  • Controversies surrounding whether genetic engineering in humans interferes with the evolutionary selection process and whether it is a modern form of eugenics.

In Conclusion

Genetic engineering uses recombinant DNA technology to create genetically modified organisms or GMOs. It is one of the most powerful technologies available in molecular biology. On the other hand, it’s also one of the most controversial. Nevertheless, the benefits of genetic engineering are so much more than creating new GMOs.

Its application also improves existing techniques, unravels complex biological processes and brings about new technologies and novel approaches. When used within the bounds of ethical and safety concerns, it brings about the technological advancement that can improve the quality of life.


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