GENETICS-UNLOCKING THE SECRET OF LIFE
Genetics - unlocking the secret of life
Genetics is the study of genes, which determines the unique characteristics and traits of an organism. Of course we now know that genetics has actually gone much beyond the earlier definition of mapping hereditary characteristics and their combinations.
Genetics has provided man with the key to unlock nature's code and make alterations to suit him. The applications of genetics have ruffled several feathers with cloning, they have raised angry protests with their applications in agriculture and they have given hope to people with hereditary diseases owing to genetic disorders.
Genetics is constantly developing and testing further frontiers of biology, science, medicine and technology, some would like to conclusively say that it is for the better while others are wary of tampering with nature's original product. Whatever the differing views, genetics is a reality and one that hits you right in the face.
But what can one do with genetics? Here's a brief look at the applications of genetics.
Cloning is the replication (in a laboratory) of genes, cells or organisms from one single original entity. In this process, an exact copy, or clone can be reproduced. Cloning can be done for any living organism; in fact cloning of plants has been very common for decades now.
The gene therapy procedure involves inserting or sometimes deleting a portion of the gene in people afflicted with certain hereditary diseases. Gene therapy is still in its infancy and is currently in its experimental stage.
We humans are born with dozens of defective genes obtained from our ancestors, of which we are blissfully unaware until the disease manifests itself. Statistics reveal that about one in ten people carry or will develop an inherited genetic disorder at some stage in their life. Gene therapy can be targeted to the body (called somatic) or the egg and sperm (called germline). In the former, only the patient's genome is changed to cure him/her, while in the latter the parents' egg or sperm is changed eliminating chances of the disease being passed on to future generations.
Some hurdles standing in the way of this therapy are the exact mapping of the DNA, to pinpoint the location of the disease and the how to insert a gene into the body.
Like in the case of cloning there are ethical issues involved in gene therapy too. For example, who decides what is normal, or what is a disability or disorder? Are disabilities diseases? Is somatic gene therapy more ethical than germline therapy?
Simple genetic engineering has been practiced since ancient times by farmers. For hundreds of years, farmers have been selecting only the best seeds for yielding better crops, the have also attempted cross breeding. Modern day engineers don't have wait out an entire crop for finding if it is the best, they simply isolate the genes responsible for a specific trait and insert them into the DNA string of another plant! Through genetic engineering, it is possible to increased crop yield, improved crop quality, and reduced production costs.
Of course the present scenario is not yet that rosy, plants are genetically and physiologically more complex than single-cell organisms and the necessary technologies are developing slowly. Genetic engineering can improve taste, size, color, texture and even the ripening process of fruits and vegetables. Through the genetic technology scientists can make watermelons without seeds or a combination of a banana and an apple! On the other hand, biotechnology is also used for developing more effective pesticides and herbicides.
Scientists in the University of Cornell are working on worm resistant potatoes; they are also using genetic technology to grow bigger and better oat crops. Genetic technology is also being used more meat and milk production.
But genetically modified food, like cloning and gene therapy has come under much criticism. Some issues relating to this include the health hazards to humans, environment hazards, economic issues, adverse impact on the third world countries and etc.
In the courtroom
Like fingerprints, which are unique to a person and have been used in the courtroom for criminal cases, DNA too is unique to a single person and has been used for criminal and other cases. DNA samples can be taken from several sources like, bloodstain at the crime scene, hair, pulp found inside the root of a tooth or skin tissue! For example the bloodstained clothing of Abraham Lincoln could be analyzed for evidence of a genetic disorder called Marfan's Syndrome!
DNA testing does take time but it is highly accurate, in a particular case the odds that the match was incorrect were 350 million to 1! DNA in the courtroom was first used in 1980s in the US, to convict a man of raping a 13 year-old girl. Tissue samples were taken from both the man and the fetus (which had been previously aborted) and the DNA was analyzed. The results were conclusive and the man ultimately confessed.
Human Genome Project
This project was started in 1990, and it is an effort coordinated by the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. The project originally was planned to last 15 years, but effective resource and technological advances have accelerated the expected completion date to 2003. The goals of the project are to:
Identify all the approximately 30,000 genes in human DNA,
Determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA,
Store this information in databases,
Improve tools for data analysis,
Transfer related technologies to the private sector, and
Address the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) that may arise from the project.
Several types of genome maps have already been completed, and a working draft of the entire human genome sequence was announced in June 2000, with analyses published in February 2001. By licensing technologies to private companies and awarding grants for innovative research, the project is catalyzing the multibillion-dollar U.S. biotechnology industry and fostering the development of new medical applications.