Genetic engineering Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The techniques of genetic engineering are at the heart of biotechnology. Despite some controversy, genetic engineering has found many industrial applications in agriculture, medicine, and other biology-based businesses.

In 1953, English scientist Francis Crick and the American biologist James D. Watson discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), unlocking the secrets of the genetic mechanisms of reproduction. Within a few decades, the techniques of genetic engineering had increased scientists’ understanding of biological processes and allowed for alterations to living creatures, thereby creating new products, services, and industries.Genetic engineering

In Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980)Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980), the United States Supreme Court upheld the right of companies to patent life-forms created or significantly modified through human invention. The result was a flood of genetically modified organisms (GMO), which altered the landscape of a number of business areas, including agriculture (where there was a good deal of opposition) and medicine (where there was less conflict). Research into the genetic manipulation of animals and plants proceeded vigorously and helped encourage partnerships between research universities and commercial developers. Early milestones included the production of synthetic human insulin in 1980, Harvard’s development of the oncomouse (a mouse for cancer research) in 1984, and the commercial availability of the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. In 1996, genetically engineered crops were grown on 3.8 million acres of American cropland, but by 1999, that number had reached 70.9 million acres. By the end of the twentieth century, genetically engineered soybeans and cotton made up more than half of the total crop, and 28 percent of corn was also grown from genetically engineered varieties.

Advances in bioscience often initially are criticized as meddling with nature. In the United States, genetic engineering became stigmatized because of an association with cloning (in which a genetically identical plant or animal is created), especially of human beings. Another related issue was the use in research of embryonic stem cells, which are favored for their ability to differentiate into other cell types. In 2001, President George W. Bush limited further research to sixty already existing embryonic stem-cell lines. Critics complained that such restrictions delay development of genetically based applications to treat illnesses or result primarily in shifting the locus of scientific work to nations without such restrictions.

Oregon State University professor Steve Strauss is among scientists working on genetically engineered poplar trees that resist pollution and grow faster.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Supporters of research in transgenic technology claim that critics succeed only in keeping from the world’s disadvantaged from benefiting from the science they need to stave off poverty and famine. Some scientists believe that underdeveloped parts of the world may offer the greatest potential for discovering genetic treasures that can enrich humanity’s medical resources while sustaining local economic development. Some critics argue that such technological fixes are ultimately counterproductive as they draw excessively on natural resources and run the risk of diminishing the gene pool, with the potential for catastrophic results.

However, many scientists think that genetic engineering is ultimately beneficial to agriculture, as it can help produce plants that are resistant to disease and insect infestation.

Further Reading
  • Paarlberg, Robert. Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Roberts, Paul. The End of Food. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
  • Wilson, Edward O. The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.


Cereal crops

Food and Drug Administration


Health care industry

Rice industry

Categories: History