Genetic engineering: Industrial applications
Foundations in Medical Pharmacogenomics (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Microbial genetics emerged in the mid-1940’s, based upon Mendelian principles of heredity. The role of DNA advanced the understanding of the mechanisms of gene transfer between bacteria. The discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick illuminated the role of genetic expression at the molecular level. Experiments with bacteria, viruses, and plasmids established the foundations of molecular genetics, leading the way to further research on the role of DNA ligases, restriction enzymes, and recombinant DNA.
In 1971, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen successfully spliced a toad gene between two recombined ends of bacterial DNA. Further experimentation with recombinant molecules and gene cloning formed the basis for emerging genetic engineering technologies. The term “technology fusion” was coined in the 1970’s to describe the converging roles of food, drug, and industrial chemical industries in the corporate development of biotechnology and the manufacture of genetically modified products, setting the stage for a new bioeconomy. Boyer and Robert Swanson formed Genentech in 1976, a company devoted to the development and promotion of biotechnology and genetic engineering applications. The current bioeconomy is driven by major life sciences corporations including Syngenta, Bayer, Monsanto, Dow, and DuPont.
In 1978, Boyer discovered a synthetic version of the human insulin...
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Cleaning up Waste (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Since the 1970’s, numerous industrial processes have been based on applications of genetic engineering and biotechnology, ranging from the production of new medicines and foods to the manufacture of new materials for cleaning up the environment and enhancing natural resource recovery. These applications focus on industrial processes that reduce or eliminate the production of waste products and consume low amounts of energy and nonrenewable resources. The chemical, plastic, paper, textile, food, farming, and pharmaceutical industries are positively impacted by biotechnology.
Genetic engineering methods are employed in myriad applications to help clean up waste and pollution worldwide. In 1972, Ananda Chakrabarty, a researcher at General Electric (who would later join the college of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago), applied for a patent on a genetically modified bacterium that could partially degrade crude oil. Other scientists quickly recognized that toxic wastes might be cleaned up by pollution-eating microorganisms. After a financial downturn for a number of years, a resurgence in bioremediation technology occurred in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when genetically engineered bacteria were produced that could accelerate the breakdown of oil, as well as a diversity of unnatural and synthetic compounds, such as plastics, chlorinated insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. In 1987 and 1988,...
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Biomass and Materials ScienceWaste management (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Genetically altered microorganisms can transform animal and plant wastes into materials usable by humans. Bioengineered bacteria and fungi are being developed to convert biomass wastes, such as sewage solid wastes (paper, garbage), agricultural wastes (seeds, hulls, corn cobs), food industry by-products (cartilage, bones, whey), and products of biomass, such as sugars, starch, and cellulose, into useful products like ethanol, hydrogen gas, and methane.
Commercial amounts of methane are generated from animal manure at cattle, poultry, and swine feed lots; sewage treatment plants; and landfills. Biofuels will be cleaner and generate less waste than fossil fuels. In a different application involving fuel technology, genetically modified microbes are used to reduce the pollution associated with fossil fuels by eating the sulfur content from these fuels.
In applications involving the generation of new materials, a gene generated in genetically modified cotton can produce a polyester-like substance that has the texture of cotton, is even warmer, and is biodegradable. Other genetically engineered biopolymers are produced to replace synthetic fibers and fabrics. Polyhydroxybutyrate, a feedstock used in producing biodegradable plastics, is being manufactured from genetically modified plants and microbes. Natural protein polymers, very similar to spider silk and the adhesives generated by...
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Natural Resource Recovery (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Bioengineered microbes are being developed to extract and purify metals from mined ores and from seawater. The microbes obtain energy by oxidizing metals, which then come out of solution. Chemolithotrophic bacteria, such as Bacillus cereuss, are energized when they oxidize nickel, cobalt, and gold. They may be used to filter out and concentrate precious metals from seawater. Iron and sulfur-oxidizing bacteria can also concentrate and release precious metals from seawater. Genetically modified thermophilic bacteria are being produced to extract precious metals from sands. Some genetically altered microorganisms can withstand extreme environments of high salinity, acidity, heavy metals, temperature, and/or pressure, such as those that exist around hydrothermal vents where precious minerals are present near the bottom of the ocean.
Genetically engineered strains of the bacteria Pseudomonas and Bacillus are being produced to extract oil from untapped reservoirs and store it rather than digest it. These bacteria can be extracted and processed to recover the oil. Other strains are being developed to absorb oil from the vast supplies of oil shale in North America. The process involves drilling into the oil shale and breaking it into pieces with chemical explosives. A solution of the bioengineered microbes would then be injected through a well into the rock fragments, where they would grow and...
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Further Reading (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette, and William R. Newman, eds. The Artificial and the Natural: An Evolving Polarity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007. This set of essays explores the classical roots of the debate regarding the merits of nature and artifice and its relevance to the prominent role of biotechnology in contemporary cultures.
Erickson, Britt E. “Synthetic Biology: Rapidly Emerging Field Opens Many Opportunities but also Poses Difficult Challenges.” Chemical & Engineering News 87, no. 31 (August 3, 2009): 23-25. Brief introduction to the rubrics of synthetic biology.
Evans, Gareth M. Environmental Biotechnology: Theory and Application. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2003. Describes basic principles and methods involved in the remediation of contaminated soils and groundwater through applications of biotechnology and natural processes.
Hindmarsh, Richard. Edging Towards BioUtopia: A New Politics of Reordering Life and the Democratic Challenge. Crawley: University of Western Australia Press, 2008. Provides a political history of the impact of biotechnology and subsequent industrial innovations from the perspective of Australia with respect to the policies and controversies in the United States.
Hines, Ronald N., and D. Gail McCarver. “Pharmacogenomics and the Future of Drug Therapy.” Pediatric Clinics of North America 53, no. 4 (August 1,...
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Web Sites of Interest (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
The American Journal of Human Genetics. www.cell.com/AJHG. Online papers are presented weekly. This site can also be accessed on Facebook at www.facebook .com/pages/American-Journal-of-Human-Genetics.
The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society. www.thenewatlantis.com. Provides a forum for thinking about the social impacts of emerging biotechnologies.
The Pharmacogenomics Journal. www.nature.com/tpi. Edited by Professor Julio Licenio, this site publishes original research in the field of pharmacogenomics.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. www.synbioproject.org. Provides information on emerging synthetic biology technologies.
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