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The genetic engineering technology

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It is multi-disciplinary technology involving every aspect of biological sciences

By Dr. S. M. Alam and Dr. R. Ansari
Nuclear Institute of Agriculture,
Tando Jam, Pakistan
Jul 24 - 30, 2000

The linking or joining together in a scientific manner of two DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acids- These are nucleic acids containing deoxyribose (sugar), consisting of complex molecules with little oxygen and present in chromosomes of all plant, human and animal cells and carrying in coded form specific instructions for passing on of hereditary characteristics in the body for which the technology is carried out) molecules in a well and fully autoclaved, sterilized test tube and the subsequent insertion of this union of individual molecule into a living thing, whether it is of plant, human or animal origin. It does not necessarily imply that the two molecules never join together in nature, since frequently genetic engineering is used to achieve quickly and precisely and in high yield, a result which occurs only very rarely in nature. When applied to high organisms the term is usually taken to imply the introduction into an organism of a function, usually a gene or genes which either have not previously been detected in that organism or exist in it in a different form. The first suggestion that DNA might have something to do with inheritance was made in 1944 by a biology student. In l958, one American and a British, in Cambridge studied the structure of DNA and confirmed that a long, fragile molecule in the chromosomes carried the genetic code. That is, it contained the blueprint for all life. Later on in l962, the first X-ray diffraction images of DNA were made in London by two scientists, who were awarded Nobel prize.

Genetic Engineering, termed as DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) recombinant has become one of the most important scientific ventures of the 21st century. It is molecular technology used to modify genetic composition of any living organism (microbe, plant, man, animal etc.). The past three decades have seen unprecedented progress in the field of genetic engineering. Research and development in biotechnology in and around 1962, which streamlined the technique to cut and join the genetic material (DNA) at specify sites or locations and other related advances in understanding transfer and/or recovery of foreign genes in any organisms have made a revolutionary impact on every aspect of human activities, which include agriculture, industry, livestock and medicine. The context in which biotechnology is being developed, is very different from that of the earlier Green Revolution, when the new high yielding varieties of wheat and rice were both produced and distributed largely by the public sector by doing a time consumable research work at those days. Significant and remarkable changes have occurred in the role and involvement of private and commercial interests in agricultural research in general and biotechnology in particular.

This novice biotechnology uses the knowledge about the interior of a living cell. This knowledge makes things easier to research workers to direct and manipulate the products they obtain. In this manner, the coded alterations in the cellular DNA can convert cell of specific wanted creatures into living energy source. Due to this achievement, it seems within the reach of man's efforts to generate miracle drugs and fight against viral diseases, which has tremendously effects in the developing countries, in production of self- fertilizing crops that release phytotxins to fight against pests and to develop refining processes to utilized the industrial waste or sewage sludge and to give comfort of the anxieties to humans about the coming days. With the development in technology, it has become possible to manipulate genes for almost any character, resulting in the production of desired traits. There are a vast areas of application of genetic engineering and biotechnology for the cause of human beings. Some of these are:

Agriculture: In Agriculture, plant genetic engineering can be defined as application of set of internal techniques for modification and culture of plant cells, tissue and organs alone or in combination with bacterial systems leading to the regeneration of transgenic plants. The greatest possibility of utilizing genetic engineering of crops, lies with the single characters like disease resistance. The genetic manipulation using conventional plant breeding takes decades provided the desired genes are available among cross compatible species or varieties. Whereas, genetic engineering has the potential of achieving the same in months or years. This technique is used to achieve higher yields, more nutrients, better taste in cereals, higher sugar recovery in sugarcane longer stronger and finer fiber in cotton, more proteins in pulses, more oil in oilseed crops, introduction of disease-free and pest-resistant varieties, varieties which can tolerate heat, cold, flood, drought and adverse soil conditions. But the steadily transfer from breeding to gene transfer is taking place only because of the fact that the conventional breeding cannot control the transfer of undesirable characteristics while crossing is done between two plants.

With the development of first genetically engineered tobacco plant in l985, tremendous progress has been made in the area of plant biotechnology. There are now more than fifty different crop species which have already been genetically modified. The very recent example of these innovations was the release of transgenic seed of cotton in USA and Australia. These methodological phenomena have potentials for safer agronomic practices win less dependence on hazard chemicals.

In a true sense traditionally, the plant breeders all over the world have fully utilized the most available morphological characters in addition to yield and other agronomic traits for the selection and/or development of the improved crop varieties. Though the remarkable development in this field, the geneticists have reached to a point where morphologic features provided limited scope for the selection of improved plant material. It is multi-disciplinary technology involving every aspect of biological sciences. It is fully dependent upon the recent information technology for the accomplishments of some specific objectives of genetically improved techniques. At present the bio-technologists have reached to a point, where morphological features provided a large scope for the selection of improved plant materials. With the development of DNA — based molecule markers such as Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP), AP-PCR, RAPD, DAF and more recently, Arbitrary Primed Length Polymorphism (APLP), accurate and precise selection of plant crops for desired traits, tagging of genes of interest such as disease resistance and selection of parents with known of genetic make-up have been possible. This new technology has a great potential in the area of agricultural productivity and thus used to achieve higher yields, more nutrients, better taste in cereals, higher sugar recovery in sugarcane, longer stronger and finer fiber in bottom, more proteins in pulses, more oil in oilseed crops, introduction of disease free and pest resistant varieties, which can tolerate heat, cold, flood, drought stress, adverse soil conditions etc.

The genetic engineering related to agriculture, including environment and health has developed bio-fertilizers for, rice, wheat .food legumes and diagnostic tests for tuberculosis, hepatitis-C, typhoid and beta-thalassaemia as well as processes detoxification of effluent produced by textiles and pharmaceutical industries. In view of its potential, and multi-billion dollar biotech industry has come about in North America and Europe which is investing in research and development and is pursuing an aggressive patent strategy along with the enforcement of intellectual property rights. Genetic engineering is mainly related with the developments of technologies based on plant biotechnology, (bio-fertilizers, bio-fuels, biotechnology of minerals and fossil fuels basic biology and environmental biotechnology), industrial biotechnology, biotechnology for health, and environmental biotechnology in the field of medical biotechnology.

Health: Genetic engineering has great application in the improvement of health of human beings. The genetically engineered microbes can produce biologically active medicinal compounds. These include insulin, growth hormones, interferon etc. Production of effective microbes is also possible through this technique. The cure of many horrifying disease has become possible. World today, has made phenomenal advancement in science. A latest report says that the advancement m medicine could enable a man to live as long as l50 years without getting impaired in serious physical terms. Possibly, the new century may freeze or at least halt the decaying process because of aging, and man may come to live still longer and healthier.

Industry: In industry, this technique has several application. Treatment of sewage and pollution control has been developed through this technique. Innovation of scientific approaches and their challenging application to unique and specific problems of the developing countries requires the talent of a well-trained manpower, which can define problems and devise strategies applicable in the specific system and environment. Good education at graduate level and post-doctoral work is essential in this regard. The university education system in the developing countries has been a very poor standard. University training lacks laboratory experience which is vitally important for building the intellectual maturity for the future bio-technologists. For future generation we will have to work hard to develop appropriate technologies. By the use of gene technology, clearly defined and molecularly characterizable genes governing desirable characters are transferred. With increasingly refined techniques, more new and alien characteristics can be transmitted. Quantitatively, new combinations of genetic materials are now possible.

Advantages and disadvantages: The benefits provided by biotechnological methods and transgenic traits can significantly improved the world's ability to feed itself on land already in cultivation, by increasing per unit productivity improving nutritional quality and reducing pre- and post harvest losses. Though the adoption of chemical farming methods have resulted in the production of sufficient wood but in consequence the environment has suffered a lot. It is an indoor activity used for maintaining the current level of productivity. Crop improvement through genetic engineering will be an appropriate to strengthen the agricultural productivity. Proven applications can yield tremendous productivity increases in the developing world. Furthermore, Europe's lack of acceptance of transgenic foods means that little opportunity for commercialization exists there for the moment, so developing countries can soon expect higher investment from the private sector. All the products commercialized today can make a significant difference to developing countries. Crops with insect- resistance, herbicide resistance and virus - resistance cm boost yields sharply. The next wave of products will include greater pest-resistance, improved nutritional content, and better storage quality which will reduce post-harvest losses sharply. A third wave, based on applied genomes, will bring drought-resistance, cold-resistance, better photosynthesis and other enhancements. This third wave of production will begin to arrive in about 10 years and benefit developing countries much more than the developed countries. The new technologies are needed to improve productivity, thereby increasing income and alleviating poverty. Productivity increases on current land can also help arrest its degradation and halt the shift to marginal lands. It has also been reported that the new products are probably the safest ever. The bahaviour of genes and crops has to be examined step by step and in tens of thousands of trials there has not been a problem. The public is not willing to accept the negligible chance that something might go wrong. For the public to understand the impact of biotechnology, we have to better communicates the issues. Furthermore, the cost-benefit analysis of biotechnology that exist in Europe, where large food surpluses are produced and people are relatively well-off, is very different from the one in the developing countries, with its far greater numbers of poor and malnourished people. Europe has no right to tell the developing countries how to deal with these phenomena. It is also wise to label the products of genetic engineered foods to aware the general public, so that they may purchase or not because ethics are involved therein. However, devising a scientifically sound labeling system will bite a huge challenge. Alternatively, we might simply wait until the nutritional quality traits come to the European market; Then everybody will be interested in the technology.

Research that genetically modifies developed-country crops to produce essences and flavour of tropical crops is well under way and gaining momentum in industrialized countries. These plants may replace imports from developing countries if put into production. They represent a risk to the food security and social sustainability of developing countries. A few American companies are doing researches on the crops community of third world such as banana, coffee, vegetable, cocoa etc. They are interested in accessing Third World gene banks, but are unwilling to transfer technology to Third World researchers.

This new technological frontier is risky and costly and yet to prove its advantages for developing-country agriculture. It is obviously a very good business, but farmers, consumers and environment are unlikely to benefit. In general, the developing-country community needs appropriate technology, instead of biotechnology. Appropriate technology is ecological, people-centered and sustainable. Its use optimizes and manages natural resources through community-based wisdom and production systems.

Modern biotechnology, at its present level of development is more of a risk to food security and food production in the Third World than a benefit, especially in the case of small-scale farmers, who still make up a significant part of the economically active population in developing countries. These farmers are more susceptible to the economic risks caused by the higher production costs and the economic dependence on the suppliers of the seeds and chemical inputs needed for the new transgenic varieties. For the moment, developing-country authorities should not permit the use of transgenic animals and plants in areas other than controlled experimental plots tagging with proper labels. Developing countries should make a strong effort to develop biotechnology expertise, especially in health-related areas such as vaccine and medicine production, but this should not be a first priority in agricultural development strategy.

Recent medical and other scientific publications have in the developed countries, in fact, raised a series of questions about the direct and indirect health and environmental hazards of the new plants and the human beings. These hazards include increased food allergies, cross breading with non-transgenic crops, genetically transferred antibiotic, resistance, ecological imbalances caused by the killing of animal or plant species sensitive to genetically engineered pesticide toxins, greater abuse of the environment by herbicides and so on. Some civil society organization call for a 15-year moratorium on the commercial use of this technology.

Genetic engineering is a subject of great criticism. It is very truly has an ethical problem, due to its misuse in the development of another living creature or material. The environmentalists feel that it bears risks of creating monstrous forms of life with potential hazard of unknown proportions. Despite all the limitations and criticism, this technology is moving fast towards the second green revolution. Most scientists are convinced that genetic engineering does not pose any threat. Yet, the controversy remains, and remind us the importance of public relations in the introduction of a new technology. There is a need to apprise general public ranging from common man to intelligentsia about this technology. People must be convinced that a tomato picked from a genetically engineered plant is as good or better than the existing once. Islam is a friendly religion. This religion has a complete code of life with practical concept which have several advantages and ethics of life. It is our duty to understand the natural phenomenon and do work within the framework of Islamic ways.