Monday, June 24, 2013

Genetic Engineering is forty years old this year

Genetic Engineering is 40 years old this year.

It was discovered (or invented) in 1973, when researchers found that some organisms deployed "restriction enzymes" to fight off attackers.  These were enzymes that snipped DNA into bits, rendering the invading organism unable to replicate. But each class of restriction enzyme cut DNA at a certain sequence of bases, and since they didn't cut straight across the DNA but above and below that sequence, they left a sticky tail of single stranded DNA wherever they cut. Since single-stranded DNA prefers to be double-stranded, these short tails each continued to look for its complementary cut half to make itself whole.  Scientists quickly realized that if you cut up one piece of DNA with a restriction enzyme,  for instance a plasmid, the short circle of DNA that bacteria use to swap useful genes between themselves, together with another piece of DNA, such as the piece for human insulin, and mixed them together, as they found their apparent partners, some of the products were going to form plasmids with the gene for insulin inside them. And you could then introduce that 'recombinant' plasmid to a bunch of bacteria – such as the well-studied gut bacterium E. coli  – and some of the bacteria would accept it 'thinking' it was a useful gene. They'd then produce insulin.

This breakthrough occurred, as I say, in 1973, just 40 short years ago. Since then we have seen all kinds of developments in molecular biology that rival computing and Moore's Law with ease.  Forty years ago, biologists spent two or three days at a time in the lab trying to add one or two base pairs to something. Today, gene replicators are commonplace and you can get your ENTIRE genome sequenced for less than your life savings (down from $3 billion).

I was at college in 1979, studying Molecular Biology, this 6 year old science, and it eventually occurred to me to ask: How did it come about that scientists get to cut up genes and put them into gut bacteria? isn't it dangerous? Doesn't anyone give a shit?

I wrote an undergraduate essay on the subject. The bottom line: the people who decided it could be dangerous were the scientists themselves, and they put in place a moratorium until they could figure out the dangers. Once the politicians caught up, this was not regarded as adequate, and thundering was heard from city to state to congress. 

Other tidbits included learning that mayors of big college towns are not scientifically literate and will interpret your request to upgrade a cockroach-ridden facility to a sterile one will be seen as something to do with things that crawl and things that creep  - and therefore be vetoed, but on the other hand, as rules evolve you'll see "Biohazard" committees officially renamed to "Biosafety" committees as if Orwell was personally in charge.

What follows is the undergraduate essay itself, from1979.  There are a lot of Britishisms – because I was British – and a great deal of undergraduate earnestness that might be off-putting. The quoting and the referencing style is not-very-good 1970s, and so might not reach the standards of today, but I'm not going to change it.  The discussion section was pure sucking up to my professors, so you can totally discount it.

All in all, if you want to know more about the era, I'd still recommend the major reference in it, Playing God, by June Goodfield.  It's out of date, but that's the point.

The essay follows. 

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