Genetic Engineering: A Brief Overview

Genetic Engineering – By: Dr. John Kyndt ( Head Scientist of the Renewable Energy Program at Advanced Energy Creations Lab) and Dr. Aecio D’Silva.

Genetic Engineering – Depending on whom you ask the definition of genetic engineering (GE) can vary quite a bit. Some define it as changing an organism’s DNA to make it incorporate certain traits, however in a broader sense, genetic engineering has been going on for a very long time in the form of selective breeding.

Most current articles on the topic you’ll find actually define GE as going into a cell and changing its genome by inserting or removing DNA, which is a very new technology.

Genetic Engineering – The safety of GE Crops for Human Consumption

Modern genetic engineering began in 1973 when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen used enzymes to cut a bacteria plasmid and insert another strand of DNA in the gap.

Genetic Engineering - Has Been Revolutionized around the Globe

Genetic Engineering – Has Been Revolutionized around the Globe

Since those experiments the concept of genetic engineering has been revolutionized around the globe.

The debate about the safety of genetic engineered crops for human consumption is still a heated one and although in 1992 the FDA already declared that genetically engineered foods are “not inherently dangerous” and do not require special regulation, many other countries in the world are taking a more skeptical approach.

In 1986, the first field tests of genetically engineered plants (tobacco) were conducted in Belgium, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the European Union’s first genetically engineered crop, tobacco, was approved in France.

Monsanto BT corn is another prime example of how GE provided farmers with higher yields by reducing loss from insect damage; improving grain quality by reducing contamination from mycotoxins; and supplying farmers with an efficient, easy-to-implement pest management option.

Although in public opinion, the motivations for its use are still controversial, recent studies show that Bt corn has saved Midwest farmers in the US billions of dollars.

The public controversy of using GE appears to be limited to food crops or large scale outdoor cultivation. However, using GE for research and development of novel therapeutics or industrial production of chemicals is generally seen as innovative and better accepted by the public.

For example, we have been able to make bacteria that produce human insulin for diabetics (which previously had to be isolated from livestock). In 1982, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first genetically engineered drug, Genentech’s Humulin, a form of human insulin produced by bacteria. This was the first consumer product developed through modern bioengineering.

However when the concept is taken one step further one can imagine the concept of human genetic engineering, which is the alteration of an individual’s genotype to select the phenotype (=characteristic trait) of a newborn or changing the existing phenotype of a child or adult.

Although this technology is still very premature and generally considered science fiction, the concept is very promising to cure diseases with a genetic origin. Needless to say that there are numerous ethical issues that come up with this concept.

Genetic Engineering – The Use of GE for Enhanced Biofuel Production from Biomass

Less futuristic and more relevant to AEC-L is the use of GE for enhanced biofuel production from biomass. Current research by groups active in this field is focused on using the power of GE to improve the biofuel yield of a specific crops (e.g. algae or jatropha) or incorporating the ability to produce biofuels to high level in easy to grow target species (e.g. bacteria or yeast that produce and tolerate high levels of EtOH butanol, or lipids).

This is done by manipulating genes in specific pathways and/or incorporating specific DNA fragments into target species. In a lot of cases we are still at the point of developing the tools to manipulate the target species, but recent breakthroughs are showing a lot of promise on a lab to pilot scale.

For example E. coli has been manipulated to tolerate higher levels of alcohols and produce simple alkanes (lipids). Algae have been engineered to excrete the lipids or EtOH they produce to allow for easier extraction.

However, in pretty much all of these cases we still have to overcome challenges with economic scalability and further optimization through GE is necessary and expected. In addition, even when for example a ‘superalgae’ can be engineered, we have already cautioned for the public perceptions and potential hazards that could arise when using these on a large scale (Algae GMO’s: The Next Big Challenge in Algae for Biofuels?)

As usual we believe at AEC-Laboratories that innovation is the key to pushing the renewable energy solutions forward. The power of GE will play a crucial role in developing solutions that are truly economically and environmentally sustainable.

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