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Who owns life?Tiki looking at DNA molecule

So what is genetic engineering?

'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".
'I know how to handle you!'
'Yeeow!
Genes can do unexpected and unintended things and nobody can ever be quite sure what. So it is wise to be very careful.


What can genetic engineering do?

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?

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