For the past couple weeks, we have been discussing genetic engineering and biotechnology in AP Bio. We discovered how plasmids can be engineered to have specific DNA sequences, and how those plasmids can then be injected into bacteria. In class, we injected E. coli bacteria with pQuince plasmids, which glowed under UV light when plated on agar containing ampicillin, arabinose, and nutrients.
We also looked at a couple of other ways in which biotechnology is being used in the real world. I researched how scientists are finding ways to use genetic engineering to find solutions to our environmental pollution problem. Scientists have found that certain bacteria have great metabolic capabilities, being able to digest toxic wastes and extract heavy metals from their environments. However, these bacteria are not the best suited for harsh environments. Scientists have been able to transfer this metabolic gene into bacteria that are able to survive in highly toxic environments, allowing them to help clean up mining facilities and help with wastewater treatment. Bioremediation, as this technology is called, is being used to clean up rivers and sewage, and can help purify soil. However, while researching this, I also thought about the bioethical questions that this kind of technology raises. While these microbes may seem like a great way to clean the environment, there is no telling how unleashing thousands of microorganisms could impact ecosystems and the balance of nature. While this is amazing technology, more research has to be done to determine the long-term effects of bioremediation.
Another case of genetic engineering and technology we discussed was the use of CRISPR-Cas9, a DNA sequence that can be found in bacteria and is used to directly edit genomes of other organisms. CRISPR can be programmed to search for specific DNA sequences and can cut those sequences out of a genome using microscopic “scissors,” or a protein that cuts DNA. CRISPR can help to change genetic mutations that lead to diseases such as Huntington’s and sickle-cell disease, and could be used to improve the lives of thousands of people who suffer from serious conditions. However, there is a growing fear that such technology could give rise to genetic modification being used for aesthetic or cosmetic purposes. Many envision a GATTACA-like future, where children are designed and perfected from the embryo stage, and those who aren’t perfect are looked down on.
While such complicated edits are currently unrealistic, this is a question that must be considered with the rapid advancement of biotechnology and genetic engineering. Where is the line between bettering someone’s life and creating a “designer baby?” Who gets access to this type of treatment? At the moment, these treatments are still waiting to undergo clinical testing, but once they have been declared safe for disease treatment, these questions must be more carefully considered in order to benefit as many people as possible.
There are other applications of genetic engineering that have yet to be discovered. During spring break two years ago, my family and I took a road trip from Oregon to Canada to explore the beautiful sights and dazzling nature. Road trips call for many things, including but not limited to a constant switch of radio stations, bathroom breaks on the side of the road, tourist trap restaurants, and most importantly, podcasts. More specifically, Radiolab, a podcast run by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. As we crossed the border into the land of hockey, moose, and maple syrup, we were listening intently to an episode about color, and how we perceive color. We know that humans see the ROYGBIV rainbow, dogs see less colors, and there are organisms that can see far more. The two producers brought in multiple researchers and scientists who spoke about the mantis shrimp, a tiny organism that lives deep in the sea that has 16 cones in their eyes that they use to perceive color. To put that into perspective, dogs have 2 cones, we have 3, and butterflies have 5. To illustrate the reception of color in different organisms, Abumrad and Krulwich turned to a New York choir to sing the colors of the rainbow.
At the time I was in Mrs. Girard’s biology class, and we must have just gone over genetics and gene editing. As we listened to the podcast, I wondered how it was that certain organisms could just see things we couldn’t imagine, all because of different photoreceptor cells that could perceive things we couldn’t. A small part of me began to wonder if it would ever be possible to edit human genomes to produce the cells mantis shrimps had that allowed them to see past the rainbow. I still have no idea if or how this would work, or even why someone would try to achieve this, but it has stuck with me ever since I heard that podcast. You can listen to it here, if only to listen to the choir singing about the mantis shrimp in the context of the episode.