Everyone knows that DNA is the building block of life—by virtue of being alive, every living creature has their own individual DNA sequence. This is where genes come from, and they have long been considered an immobile factor of traits like blue eyes, height, or even predisposition to certain diseases, but that’s all changing as genetic engineering inches closer to reality.
Simply put, genetic engineering refers to the act of manipulating, modifying, or recombining DNA in order to influence the traits of an organism. Often when people hear the term genetic engineering, they jump to imagining two 5 foot tall parents opting to have a 6 foot tall child just out of preference, but that’s not where the technology is currently being applied, or even where it’s likely leading.
Genetic engineering can be used for all sorts of applications, from modifying crop plants to correct pervasive diseases to creating a bacteria capable of synthesizing human insulin. This technology isn’t exactly new, but it’s being honed in exciting ways that could prove a major asset to the human race.
Before Tech, Silicon Valley Loved DNA
After DNA was discovered to have its characteristic double shape and subsequently synthesized in a lab in the 1950s, interest in genetic engineering exploded in the ‘60s, and Silicon Valley was the epicenter. It makes sense, given the region’s reputation for innovation and technology that its early days would have been defined by an interest in biological innovation, a technology of a different sort.
By the 1970s, scientists had achieved the first instance of recombinant DNA (a branch of genetic engineering where genes are spliced and put back together in new ways). However, potential ethical questions put a stop to further genetic engineering advancements in the ‘70s.
Later, genetic engineering became an important component of creating new vaccines, as well as insulin shots which were previously made from organic animal material. The ‘90s also saw the rise of GMOs in food, and the famous cloning of Dolly The Sheep, marking a major milestone in genetic engineering.
In 2012, CRISPR was engineered; it is a mechanism that can make incredibly precise cuts in DNA, and therefore be involved in an increasingly wide range of applications. By attacking certain sequences, CRISPR is able to fight things like cancer and obesity, which are two of the most deadly issues in the world.
This technology has also ushered in something called Gene Drives, which allow people to “cheat evolution” by biasing which genes are transmitted to offspring. In 2015, a scientist in Asia edited a human embryo’s cells to prevent a blood disease, but the experiment was considered unethical due to the fact that CRISPR hadn’t been approved for human testing.
In 2017, a genetic engineering treatment was approved as an alternative to chemo for certain types of cancer, and in 2018 CRISPR testing for humans was approved. There’s a great deal of work left to be done in the field of genome editing before it’s commonplace.
Genetic engineering has long been a pop culture interest in one form or another. From designer babies in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to mutant-gene superheroes in X-Men, the idea of genetic engineering is nothing new in the public psyche.
As technology grows, genetic engineering may prove one of the most important developments to the world of healthcare in human history.