Genetic technology refers to efforts to understand gene expression, take advantage of genetic variation, and modify and transfer genes. Passed from one generation to another and found in all living organisms, genes are the coded instructions that organisms use to make proteins, which are the structures of all living things and which perform the functions that make life possible.
The genetic code of living organisms has been mapped for ongoing gene restructuring and remodeling. Genomics and molecular biology are laying the foundation for many advances. The integrated use of genetic diagnostics and treatment can help guide therapy. For example, diabetics who have problems making and secreting insulin can be distinguished from diabetics who react poorly to insulin and can be given custom treatments. Identifying genes and their functions can lead to the more efficient breeding of plants and animals, such as marker-assisted breeding, as the identification of desirable trait markers in genes speeds the selection process.
As scientists map the genome, they can discover and isolate disease-causing genes and identify treatments for inherited diseases like Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy. It also gives them the ability to both predict diseases and create the treatments to fight them.
The genetic code also can be mapped to improve existing crops and create new ones. Scientists have developed seeds that resist pests and increase the nutrient content of foods, making them better for human and animal consumption. There are nearly 50,000 genes in a grain of rice. With this knowledge, scientists are trying to alter the nature of the rice so that it will be less sensitive to drought and disease. Using their knowledge of genetics, they can breed insects that attack the rice’s main predators. Genetic technology has the promise to better feed the world’s population.
Agricultural biotechnology may also be used to find ways to convert plant material into energy. Scientists are working on biogenetic material that can consume carbon dioxide. However, genetic technology is also controversial, and in some quarters it is met with stiff resistance that has slowed the pace of adoption. The case of Monsanto discussed in the next chapter illustrates this point. The dangers of technology and the ways societies and companies have evolved to manage these dangers are the main topic of Chapters 4 and 5.