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The Genetic modification of foods, organisms, and animals, is very controversial, for quite obvious reasons.
And yet, the practice has great potential for helping to cure diseases and battle hunger in poorer countries. We look at 11 examples of organisms that were genetically modified by scientists, and why.
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1. Pigs that are resistant to respiratory diseases
In 2018, scientists from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute announced they had successfully eradicated the section of DNA that leaves pigs vulnerable to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, the Guardian wrote at the time — sometimes genetic modification really sounds like computer programming.
The disease that the GM pigs were made resistant to is estimated to cost European farmers £1.5bn a year in loss of livestock and decreased productivity. Genetically modified animals are banned from the European Union food chain — some experts suggest this new technique might encourage a reevaluation.
2. Land mine-detecting plants
As an MIT statement put it in 2016, "spinach is no longer just a superfood."
"By embedding leaves with carbon nanotubes," the MIT piece explains, "MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosives and wirelessly relay that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone."
The approach, called "plant nanobionics" by the researchers, is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants. It allows plants to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines. When the plant detects these compounds it emits a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera.
3. Genetically modified salmon that grow incredibly quickly
In 2017, the Canadian authorities allowed a genetically modified (GM) salmon, which had been designed by US company AquaBounty, to be sold in supermarkets. The salmon was designed to be market-ready in 18 months — half the time a salmon would take to grow to that size in the wild.
Controversially, the fish were not labeled as GM in the shops, prompting CBAN in Canada to write this article about how to avoid eating GM salmon in 2017.
4. Mosquitoes designed to birth weak offspring
A British company called Oxitec created genetically modified male mosquitoes that carry a “self-limiting gene”. This means that when they are released into the wild and procreate with female mosquitoes, their offspring die at a young age.
This method has shown great potential in battling diseases such as Zika and malaria, which are carried and spread by mosquitoes. Unfortunately, some scientists argue that releasing the genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild may have helped to create a more resilient hybrid species of mosquito.
5. Cows genetically modified to produce something resembling human milk
Scientists in China and Argentina have genetically modified cows to produce milk that is similar to that produced by human mothers. Researchers modified an embryo of an Argentinian cow to produce milk that contained proteins that are present in human milk, that are not typically present in cow milk.
As LiveScience points out, the researchers face many tests and hurdles before this type of milk is deemed as a safe replacement milk for human infants.
6. Ruppy, the glow-in-the-dark clone beagles
As NewScientist writes, the cloned beagle named Ruppy – short for Ruby Puppy – is the world’s first transgenic dog. She is one of five beagles that were engineered to produce a fluorescent protein that glows red under ultraviolet light.
A team that included Byeong-Chun Lee of Seoul National University in South Korea and stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang, created the dogs by cloning fibroblast cells that express a red fluorescent gene produced by sea anemones.
The proof-of-principle experiment was aimed at leading the way for transgenic dog models of human disease.
7. The glow-in-the-dark pet Glofish
The Glofish goes down in history as the first-ever genetically created designer pet. It was first engineered as a proof of concept for gene splicing, by Dr. Zhiyuan Gong at the National University of Singapore. In 1999, Gong and his team extracted the green fluorescent protein (GFP) from a jellyfish and inserted it into a zebrafish.
The glow-in-the-dark, and now trademark branded, Glofish goldfish were actually inspired by real-life fish and marine life that glows for biological purposes, such as catching prey.
8. Featherless chickens
Featherless chickens were engineered to make the lives of farmers easier — de-feathering a chicken is no easy task.
Unfortunately, as New Scientist points out, many critics of the GM feather-free chickens say that they suffer more than normal birds. Males are unable to mate, as they cannot flap their wings, and "naked" chickens also lose a protective layer of plumage that helps keep away parasites, mosquito bites, and sunburn.
9. See-through frogs for more humane research
Scientists at Hiroshima University genetically engineered a see-through frog. The development paves the way for dissection-free research on animals, NBC reported in 2007.
At the time, Professor Masayuki Sumida of Hiroshima University said the new line of frogs were the world's first transparent four-legged animals. Though it opens up a new intriguing line of research the scientists behind it to do stress that we won't be seeing any see-through mammals any time soon, as mammals typically have a much thicker skin.
10. Monkey-pig chimera
Just last year, scientists in China created pig-primate chimeras. The two piglets looked like normal baby pigs but had primate cells. They died within a week.
Ultimately, the research is being conducted with the ultimate goal of growing human organs in animals for transplantation. The death of the piglets is a reminder as to why genetic modification in animals is so controversial.
11. The Vacanti mouse
In the late 90s, doctors Charles Vacanti, Joseph Vacanti, and Bob Langer started to create “biodegradable scaffoldings” of human body parts, including the human ear. Famously, they genetically engineered a mouse to grow a human ear on its body.
The creature, which looks like something out of a horror movie, was engineered to help scientists understand how to grow body parts in humans, using their own skin and cartilage cells.
The genetic modification of life forms is a controversial practice that will likely remain controversial for the unforeseeable future. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Be sure to let us know what you think.