Genetic engineering is a highly divisive topic, and I don’t want to get into the rights or wrongs of it. But I do want to talk about its current state of affairs, and say that genetic engineering is far more advanced, purposeful and creative than I imagined it was.
Miniature elephants. Cloned pets. Glowing fish. This is probably what most of us think of when we think of genetic engineering up to this point. What some might say frivolous ventures.
But that’s not what genetic engineering is really about.
Pigs that don’t produce as much environment-damaging phosphorous. Chickens that produce pharmaceutical proteins in the whites of their eggs. Sterile mosquitoes (no explanation necessary—no one likes dengue fever). Cancer-resistant mice (again, no explanation needed).
These are what’s happening in genetic engineering today. (By the way, the FDA has approved the Enviropig for consumption in the U.S., according to Discovery.com.)
Myocardial tissue engineering for repair or replacement of human heart tissue. Engineered organs and organ systems that could replace lab animals for disease testing. Engineered organs that could replace donated organs (which are extremely hard to come by) in transplants.
This is a glimpse of where genetic engineering is headed. And it might not be too far off.
For most of us, genetic engineering is a little like nanotechnology—we know it’s going on, but we don’t really know where it’s happening or exactly what is happening.
Until we hear about inorganic nanoflowers or we discover that the waterproof coating we sprayed on our wood deck has hydrophobic nanoparticles in it.
Honestly, the more I learn about genetics, the more it strikes me how similar genetic coding is to computer coding. The way all the parts interact kind of comes down to simple states of on and off.
(According to the National Institutes of Health website, cells only use a fraction of their genes at any given time. They turn on and turn off genes depending on what type of cell they’re supposed to be [e.g., liver versus skin] and environmental factors [e.g., people are getting taller as nutrition has improved]).
I’m also surprised by how far genetic engineering has come. And also how specific and purposeful the projects are, and how creative.
Like goats that produce spider silk. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Me neither.)
According to Discovery, molecular biologist Randy Lewis of the University of Wyoming is working on using spider silk, which is “stronger than steel and very flexible,” to make all kinds of things, from bulletproof body armor to artificial tendons.
The only problem is that you can’t farm spiders like you can silk worms, evidently, so Lewis and Nixia Biotechnologies are getting it from goats. (Yes, goats.)
Specifically, they’re taking the silk protein from the milk of “transgenic goats that have the spider silk gene inserted into their DNA” to produce the proteins in their milk. (Transgenic is the term people use to describe genetically altered animals.)
It’s similar to the chickens that produce certain proteins in their eggs. Lewis says the goats don’t look or behave any different than other farm goats. (No word on how the chickens behave.)
Okay, so the cynic in me can’t help but wonder about the goats’ lifespans and general health. And I have no illusions about a commercial application of the silk protein down the road—there will be a commercial application.
And the cynic in me also can’t help question whether the proposed purposes and actual purposes of some of these research projects are the same. But there are federal regulations in place, and researchers have to cite a specific purpose that will yield a scientific or medical benefit, according to Discovery.
We can only hope that the government has done a good enough job on the regulations governing transgenesis (transplanting the genes of one animal into another organism’s DNA).