Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology

Lesson Content

Inquire: Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology


Genetic testing is performed to identify disease-causing genes, and can be used to benefit affected individuals and their relatives who have not developed disease symptoms yet. Gene therapy — by which functioning genes are incorporated into the genomes of individuals with a non-functioning mutant gene — has the potential to cure heritable diseases. Transgenic organisms possess DNA from a different species, usually caused by molecular cloning techniques. Vaccines, antibiotics, and hormones are examples of products obtained by recombinant DNA technology. Transgenic animals have been created for experimental purposes and some are used to produce some human proteins.

Genes are inserted into plants, using plasmids in the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which infects plants. Transgenic plants have been created to improve the characteristics of crop plants — for example, by giving them insect resistance by inserting a gene for a bacterial toxin.


Big Question

What are the uses of biotechnology in medicine and agriculture?

Watch: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Read: Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology


Biotechnology is the use of artificial methods to modify the genetic material of living organisms or cells to produce new compounds or to perform new functions. Biotechnology has been used for improving livestock and crops since the beginning of agriculture through selective breeding. Since the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, and particularly since the development of tools and methods to manipulate DNA in the 1970s, biotechnology has become associated with the manipulation of organisms’ DNA at the molecular level. The primary applications of this technology are in medicine and in agriculture.

Genetic Engineering

DecorativeUsing recombinant DNA (an artificial form of DNA) sequence technology to modify an organism’s DNA to achieve desirable traits is called genetic engineering. Addition of foreign DNA in the form of recombinant DNA that are generated by molecular cloning is the most common method of genetic engineering. An organism that receives the recombinant DNA is called a genetically modified organism (GMO). If the foreign DNA that is introduced comes from a different species, the host organism is called transgenic. Bacteria, plants, and animals have been genetically modified since the early 1970s for academic, medical, agricultural, and industrial purposes.

Biotechnology in Medicine and Agriculture

It is easy to see how biotechnology can be used for medicinal purposes. Knowledge of the genetic makeup of our species, the genetic basis of heritable diseases, and the invention of technology to manipulate and fix mutant genes provides methods to treat diseases. Biotechnology in agriculture can enhance resistance to disease, pests, and environmental stress to improve both crop yield and quality.

Genetic Diagnosis and Gene Therapy

The process of testing for suspected genetic defects before administering treatment is called genetic diagnosis by genetic testing. In some cases in which a genetic disease is present in an individual’s family, family members may be advised to undergo genetic testing. For example, mutations in the BRCA genes may increase the likelihood of developing breast and ovarian cancers in women and some other cancers in women and men. A woman with breast cancer can be screened for these mutations. If one of the high-risk mutations is found, her female relatives may also wish to be screened for that particular mutation, or simply be more aware for the occurrence of cancers. Genetic testing is also offered for fetuses to determine the presence or absence of disease-causing genes in families with specific debilitating diseases.

Gene therapy is a genetic engineering technique that may one day be used to cure certain genetic diseases. In its simplest form, it involves the introduction of a non-mutated gene at a random location in the genome to cure a disease by replacing a protein that may be absent in these individuals because of a genetic mutation. The non-mutated gene is usually introduced into diseased cells as part of a DNA molecule transmitted by a virus, such as an adenovirus, that can infect the host cell and deliver the foreign DNA into the genome of the targeted cell. To date, gene therapies have been primarily experimental procedures in humans. A few of these experimental treatments have been successful, but the methods may be important in the future as the factors limiting its success are resolved.

Production of Vaccines, Antibiotics, and Hormones

Traditional vaccination strategies use weakened or inactive forms of microorganisms or viruses to stimulate the immune system. Modern techniques use specific genes of microorganisms cloned into DNA molecules and mass-produced in bacteria to make large quantities of specific substances to stimulate the immune system. The substance is then used as a vaccine. In some cases, such as the H1N1 flu vaccine, genes cloned from the virus have been used to combat the constantly changing strains of this virus.

Antibiotics kill bacteria and are naturally produced by microorganisms such as fungi; penicillin is perhaps the most well-known example. Antibiotics are produced on a large scale by cultivating and manipulating fungal cells. The fungal cells have typically been genetically modified to improve the
products of the antibiotic compound.

An electron-micrograph of sections of the bacterium Escherichia coli

Recombinant DNA technology was used to produce large-scale quantities of the human hormone insulin in E. coli as early as 1978. Previously, it was only possible to treat diabetes with pig insulin, which caused allergic reactions in many humans because of differences in the insulin molecule. In addition, human growth hormone (HGH) is used to treat growth disorders in children. The HGH gene was cloned from a cDNA (complementary DNA) library and inserted into E. coli cells by cloning it into a bacterial vector.

Transgenic Animals

Although several recombinant proteins used in medicine are successfully produced in bacteria, some proteins need a eukaryotic animal host for proper processing. For this reason, genes have been cloned and expressed in animals such as sheep, goats, chickens, and mice. Animals that have been modified to express recombinant DNA are called transgenic animals.

Several human proteins are expressed in the milk of transgenic sheep and goats. In one commercial example, the FDA has approved a blood anticoagulant (blood-thinner) protein that is produced in the milk of transgenic goats for use in humans. Mice have been used extensively for expressing and studying the effects of recombinant genes and mutations.

Transgenic Plants

Manipulating the DNA of plants has helped to create desirable traits such as disease resistance, herbicide, and pest resistance, better nutritional value, and better shelf life. Plants are the most important source of food for the human population. Farmers developed ways to select for plant varieties with desirable traits long before modern-day biotechnology practices were established.

Transgenic plants have received DNA from other species. Because they contain unique combinations of genes and are not restricted to the laboratory, transgenic plants and other GMOs are closely monitored by government agencies to ensure that they are fit for human consumption and do not endanger other plant and animal life. Because foreign genes can spread to other species in the environment, particularly in the pollen and seeds of plants, extensive testing is required to ensure ecological stability. Staples like corn, potatoes, and tomatoes were the first crop plants to be genetically engineered.


Poll: GMOs and You

Bacteria, plants, and animals have been genetically modified since the early 1970s for academic, medical, agricultural, and industrial purposes. Do you think these modifications have...

Expand: Cloning


In general, cloning means the creation of a perfect replica. Typically, the word is used to describe the creation of a genetically identical copy. In biology, the re-creation of a whole organism is referred to as “reproductive cloning.”

Reproductive Cloning

Reproductive cloning is a method used to make a clone or an identical copy of an entire multicellular organism. Most multicellular organisms undergo reproduction by sexual means, which involves the contribution of DNA from two individuals (parents), making it impossible to generate an identical copy or a clone of either parent. Recent advances in biotechnology have made it possible to reproductively clone mammals in the laboratory.

Natural sexual reproduction involves the union, during fertilization, of a sperm and an egg. Each of these gametes (the egg and sperm) are haploid, meaning they contain one set of chromosomes in their nuclei. The resulting cell, or zygote, is then diploid and contains two sets of chromosomes. This cell divides mitotically to produce a multicellular organism. However, the union of just any two cells cannot produce a viable zygote; there are components in the cytoplasm of the egg cell that are essential for the early development of the embryo during its first few cell divisions. Without these essential components, there would be no development. Therefore, to produce a new individual, both a diploid genetic complement and an egg cytoplasm are required. The approach to producing an artificially cloned individual is to take the egg cell of one individual and to remove the haploid nucleus. Then a diploid nucleus from a body cell of a second individual, the donor, is put into the egg cell. The egg is then stimulated to divide so that development proceeds. This sounds simple, but in fact, it takes many attempts before each of the steps is completed successfully.

The first cloned agricultural animal was Dolly, a sheep who was born in 1996. The success rate of reproductive cloning at the time was very low. Dolly lived for six years and died of a lung tumor. There was speculation that because the cell DNA that gave rise to Dolly came from an older individual, the age of the DNA may have affected her life expectancy. Since Dolly, several species of animals (such as horses, bulls, and goats) have been successfully cloned.

DecorativeThere have been attempts at producing cloned human embryos as sources of embryonic stem cells. In the procedure, the DNA from an adult human is introduced into a human egg cell, which is then stimulated to divide. The technology is similar to the technology that was used to produce Dolly, but the embryo is never implanted into a surrogate mother. The cells produced are called embryonic stem cells because they have the capacity to develop into many different kinds of cells, such as muscle or nerve cells. The stem cells could be used to research and ultimately provide therapeutic applications, such as replacing damaged tissues. The benefit of cloning in this instance is that the cells used to regenerate new tissues would be a perfect match to the donor of the original DNA. For example, a leukemia patient would not require a sibling with a tissue match for a bone-marrow transplant.

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Additional Resources and Readings


A virtual lab showing how human DNA is extracted for uses such as genetic testing

Evolutionary Development: Chicken Teeth – Crash Course Biology #17

A Crash Course video covering evolutionary development

Genetically Modified Foods

An article discussing the ethical concerns of genetically modified foods

Lesson Glossary


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  • biotechnology
    the use of artificial methods to modify the genetic material of living organisms or cells to produce novel compounds or to perform new functions
  • cloning
    the production of an exact copy — specifically, an exact genetic copy — of a gene, cell, or organism
  • gene therapy
    the technique used to cure heritable diseases by replacing mutant genes with good genes
  • genetic engineering
    alteration of the genetic makeup of an organism using the molecular methods of biotechnology
  • genetically modified organism (GMO)
    an organism whose genome has been artificially changed
  • reproductive cloning
    cloning of entire organisms
  • transgenic
    describing an organism that receives DNA from a different species

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jill Carson for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library. CC BY SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: Biology – 10.1 Cloning and Genetic Engineering – Cloning: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Biology – 10.2 Biotechnology in Medicine and Agriculture – Genetic Diagnosis and Gene Therapy: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeAgrobacterium-tumefaciensA. G. Matthysse, K. V. Holmes, R. H. G. GurlitzWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeEdinburgh July 2014 IMG 4384neverbutterflyWikimedia CommonsCC BY 2.0
DecorativeE.coli imagePeter HightonWikimedia CommonsCC 0
DecorativeModified Tomato GeneticallyartursfotoPixabayCC 0