What Is Genetic Engineering?

Genetic engineering is the artificial modification of an organism’s genetic composition. Genetic engineering typically involves transferring genes from one organism into another organism of a different species to give the latter specific traits of the former. The resulting organism is called a transgenic or genetically modified organism, or GMO. Examples of such organisms include plants that are resistant to certain insects and plants that can withstand herbicides.

Key Takeaways

  • Genetic engineering refers to the manipulation of an organism's genome in order to achieve some outcome.
  • Genetically modified foods (GMFs), CRISPR, and bio-engineering are all examples of genetic engineering in use today.
  • Investors looking to profit from advances in genetic engineering can look to certain genomics companies in the biotech sector.

Understanding Genetic Engineering

Manipulation of organisms' genomes goes back to early agriculture with selective breeding techniques. This process, however, was largely trial and error and took a long time to achieve results. Today's techniques use molecular-scale manipulation directly on the DNA or RNA of an organism to achieve a particular result. Much of this work is being carried out by academic research institutions, government-sponsored labs, or biotechnology companies. These companies are using genetic engineering, such as CRISPR Cas9, to create novel drugs, vaccines, and therapeutics to treat disease or to cure cancers tailored to an individual patient's genetic makeup.

Genetic engineering has been used prominently on farm animals, with research objectives such as ensuring chickens cannot spread avian flu to other birds, or that cattle cannot develop the infectious prions that cause “mad cow” disease.

Commercial cultivation of genetically engineered crops such as soybean, maize, canola, and cotton started in the early 1990s and has grown very substantially since then. Genetically engineered or GMO crops were commercially planted on over 191 million hectares in 26 developed and developing nations as of 2018, compared with less than 2 million hectares in 1996.  

Genetic Engineering Concerns and Controversy: GMOs

The topics of genetic engineering and GMOs have become highly debated and, in some cases, the source of considerable controversy. This area has generated spirited debate between adherents and opponents.

Supporters claim that genetic engineering can boost agricultural productivity by increasing crop yields and lowering pesticide and fertilizer applications. GMO tactics can allow the development of crops that are resistant to disease and have a longer shelf life. Higher productivity will boost incomes and help alleviate poverty in many developing nations. These supporters also point to genetic engineering as a way to help solve famine in areas where crops are scarce or can be difficult to grow via traditional means. Detractors list a variety of concerns surrounding GMOs, including allergic reactions, gene mutation, antibiotic resistance, and potential environmental damage. Those who are leery of genetic engineering also have concern about the unpredictable aspect of venturing into previously unexplored scientific territory. 

A large number of crops have already been subjected to genetic engineering or modification, including canola, cotton, maize, melons, papayas, potatoes, rice, sugar beets, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and wheat. Some people are opposed to genetic engineering entirely, believing that science should not interfere with the natural process of how organisms are created and develop.

The uncertainty about the potential long-term detrimental effects of these GMO crops has given rise to a widespread aversion to so-called "Frankenfoods." A study conducted by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2016, however, found no increased level of risks associated with genetically engineered crops as compared to conventionally cultivated crops.