Genetic engineering has created genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with many potential uses in medicine and agriculture. Engineered livestock and microorganisms produce pharmaceutical products. Pesticide resistance and nutritional value can be increased in transgenic crops.
Biopharming, the process of using organisms as miniature factories, can be used to produce pharmaceutical proteins like insulin, which is a hormone that diabetics inject to control their blood sugar levels. Up until the 1980s, insulin had to be extracted from the pancreases of pigs. Pig insulin sometimes caused allergic reactions, and extracting it was an expensive process which required the euthanization of many pigs. The invention of recombinant DNA human insulin has reduced costs. Today, human insulin is manufactured with genetically modified bacteria or yeast which has been modified with an insulin gene.
Some vaccines have already been created through genetic engineering, like a recombinant hepatitis B vaccine from genetically modified baker’s yeast. GMOs that can produce “edible vaccines” are currently in development. Edible vaccines would be safe, cheap, and painless. There would be no need for refrigeration or sterile needles, which have barred traditional vaccines from being widely distributed.
Crops can be genetically modified to become more tolerant of pesticides like weed killers. Herbicide-tolerant soybeans, more commonly known as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, contain a bacterial gene that allows them to resist herbicides. Farmers who plant Roundup soybeans are able to effectively control weeds using chemicals, since the soybeans are the only plants that can survive in fields treated with herbicide.
Bt corn is insect-resistant because a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is inserted in its genome. This gene prompts the plant to produce a Bt toxin, which is a natural insecticide. The toxin is continually produced inside of its tissues, in contrast to chemical insecticides, which must be constantly sprayed.
Nutrition of crops can also be improved through genetic engineering. Golden Rice was developed to combat the problem of vitamin-A deficiency, which kills two million children per year and leaves another 500,000 permanently blinded. The rice has been modified with genes from a daffodil and a bacterium so that it can produce twenty times the normal amount of beta-carotene, which is a precursor for vitamin A.The topic of the next articles in this series will be the concerns about using GMOs.
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