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Biotechnology

transferal, transgenics, ethical dilemmas, monoclonal antibodies, pathogenic microorganisms

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Biotechnology, the manipulation of biological organisms to make products that benefit human beings. Biotechnology contributes to such diverse areas as food production, waste disposal, mining, and medicine.

Although biotechnology has existed since ancient times, some of its most dramatic advances have come in more recent years. Modern achievements include the transferal of a specific gene from one organism to another (by means of a set of genetic engineering techniques known as transgenics); the maintenance and growth of genetically uniform plant- and animal-cell cultures, called clones; and the fusing of different types of cells to produce beneficial medical products such as monoclonal antibodies, which are designed to attack a specific type of foreign substance.

Controversies

Some people, including scientists, object to any procedure that changes the genetic composition of an organism. Critics are concerned that some of the genetically altered forms will eliminate existing species, thereby upsetting the natural balance of organisms. There are also fears that recombinant DNA experiments with pathogenic microorganisms may result in the formation of extremely virulent forms which, if accidentally released from the laboratory, will cause worldwide epidemics. Some critics cite ethical dilemmas associated with the production of transgenic organisms.

In 1976, in response to fears of disastrous consequences of unregulated genetic engineering procedures, the National Institutes of Health created a body of rules governing the handling of microorganisms in recombinant DNA experiments. Although many of the rules have been relaxed over time, certain restrictions are still imposed on those working with pathogenic microorganisms.

Contributors

Levine, Louis, B.S., M.S.Ed., A.M., Ph.D.

Professor, Department of Biology, City College of New York.



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