So what is genetic engineering?
is a fancy word for building something. So genetic engineering
(often just called GE) is building something with genes.
Clever scientists have learned to spot which gene does what
in making a new organism. They've found out that simple
organisms like bacteria
or viruses often have genes which are useful because
they can be snipped out and put spliced
into plant genes. Doing this could give the plant special
new abilities like resisting disease. But this can be rather
like grabbing a large scorpion so it can't nip you with
its claws. You know it's safe to handle since its claws
can't reach you but ow! it's got
a sting in its tail you didn't know about. There may be a 'sting in the
tail' which comes from splicing strange genes into other organisms
from viruses to plants, for example. No-one can be quite certain
what will happen. It is unpredictable".
Genetically modified organism, GMOs, (which are mostly plants) are mostly transgenic which means they contain genes pinched from something else like bacteria, viruses, other plants or even animals. By snipping a gene which does something useful from one organism and splicing it into another, say a crop plant, scientists can get the plant to grow bigger or faster or make more for people to eat. Or the plant could be made to be more nutritious with more protein or minerals or vitamins. Some crop plants can be made to grow in salty water or very little water good for very dry countries. Others could be engineered to resist disease which could protect kids against nasty illnesses like polio or measles.
And there's more! Plants have been engineered which use up nitrogen fertilisers more effectively. This not only means that farmers need less expensive fertiliser but also helps slow climate change. Why? Because nitrogen fertilisers produce a lot of nitrous oxide gas which is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Around 6 percent of warming is due to this gas.
Some plants legumes like peas and beans can 'fix' the nitrogen they need directly from the air. If all plants could do that, there'd be no need for nitrogen fertilisers at all, so no nitrous oxide pollution.
Energy boost for plants
Most plants, including most food plants, use a process called C3 photosynthesis to get their energy from the sun. But some plants have evolved a better way to do this called photosynthesis. In the future, it may be possible to engineer C3 food plants so that they can use the C4 process too.
Sounds great, doesn't it?