The Potential of Genetic Engineering

Ever wanted to construct a micro-biome that could produce insulin for your diabetes? Do you take pride in swapping luminescence genes into various sundry bacteria for the purpose of warning you against poisoned food? If so, then consider counting yourself as one of the many home-based/ vigilante ‘microbiologists’ who are taking their ideas to the kitchen laboratory.

Thanking access to the wealth of information that our digital age can provide us with, the science of genetic engineering is expanding while holding promise for innovative solutions to 3rd world problems (that may be achieved with crowd-sourcing). Want a strain of bacteria that can decompose plastic? Easy. With our fingertips the internet imparts the knowledge of chemical bonds that compose a polymer plastic. One then learns of candidate enzymes that may possess the capacity to break down polymers. Next the would-be scientist identifies the existence of genes that encode for that particular enzyme and then inserts them into an innocuous-enough bacterium. The end product is a bio-remediative, potentially ecologically sound solution to the host of dump disasters and forestland troubles related to plastic waste. Congratulations, if you worked out the details to the preceding steps, you have just created a plastic-eating bacteria.

Genetic engineering is a double-edged sword, but damn…it can be so useful.

I just finished reading a story out of Cowan’s Systems Approach to Microbiology about a software engineer known as Meredith Patterson who turned her kitchen into a microbiology lab to resolve a problem she sees with toxins in food. Using knowledge of recombinant DNA technology, coupled with an intimate artistry with kitchen-ware ‘centrifuges’ (salad spinner), she is/was attempting to create bacteria that will glow in the presence of a toxic substance known as melamine. After the synthesis of the correct gene sequences that  evince luminescence, Meredith intends to deploy the inoculated cultures into yogurt and other foods as a melamine warning system. Genius! And wicked kool at that.

By understanding genomes and principles of recombinant DNA technology, just about anyone can turn themselves into ‘citizen scientists’ like Meredith. Add some patient determination with creative thought and one might go far.

Potential rewards for these ‘scientists’ include aiding critical advancements in healing modalities such as gene therapy (the practice of treating disease with the insertion or deletion of problematic genes) or hormone replacement therapy (using bacteria to synthesize medically therapeutic proteins). However, the caveat to genetic engineering is to remind oneself of the detriment to human and global ecology that might be evinced by reckless gene swaps. Who knows what might be the outcome of unmitigated mating of a goat genetically engineered to produce spider silk, with a goat altered with luminescence genes by some rouge bio-hacker…..hmm.

Anyway genetic engineering is quite interesting despite the balance of ecology we should strive to maintain. What do you think?


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