Recombinant DNA Technology

Recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology is a field of molecular biology in which scientists "edit" DNA to form new synthetic molecules, which are often referred to as "chimeras". The practice of cutting, pasting, and copying DNA dates back to Arthur Kornberg's successful replication of viral DNA in a breakthrough that served as a proof-of-concept for cloning. This was followed by the Swiss biochemist Werner Arber's discovery of restriction enzymes in bacteria that degrade foreign viral DNA molecules while sparing their own DNA. Arber effectively showed geneticists how to "cut" DNA molecules; soon to follow was the understanding that ligase could be used to "glue" them together. These two achievements launched rDNA technology research, allowing Man to "play god" for the first time in human history. It also touched off a firestorm among activists such as Jeremy Rifkin, for whom terms like ‘cloning’ and ‘recombinant DNA’ conjured image of rogue scientists running amok, creating Frankensteins and using them for malign purposes, or, worse yet, losing control of their own creations.

But these fears were quieted when scientists like Paul Berg, who won the Nobel Prize in 1980 for his groundbreaking work in rDNA research, halted potentially dangerous experiments so that public policy could deal with the quandaries posed by new technological possibilities. At the Asilomar Conference in 1975, the leading recombinant DNA specialists came together in Monterey , California , and agreed upon the need for safeguards to prevent any health crises or ecological disasters, and to reassure the public that their research would proceed with caution.

Other milestones in the development of recombinant DNA include the collaboration between Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer in 1972, and the 1976 founding of Genentech, the first company to work with rDNA in its drug development labs. In 1978 scientists were able to replicate Somatostatin, the protein that regulates human growth hormones. Since then, a host of other drugs have been developed through rDNA research, including Herceptin and Epogen.

So how does one go about making an rDNA molecule? There are three basic methods: Transformation, Phage Introduction, and Non-Bacterial Transformation. No matter which method is used, the goal is to introduce recombinant genes into a host cell along with expression factor, so that the host cell expresses the desired protein. In each case, scientists need to “turn off” the signals that tell a host cell to destroy or degrade the genes being introduced.

Recombinant DNA research is a challenging field, but it holds great promise for the future. In the future, rDNA technologies will play a key role in preventing genetic diseases, producing targeted medicines, and providing patients with less toxic pharmaceuticals. It will also impact agriculture and livestock as researchers find ways to optimize the genetic codes of plants and animals to resist disease. Even so, rDNA also poses serious questions. Are we equipped to deal with the environmental impact of an rDNA molecule gone awry, e.g. genetically modified plants spreading beyond control and driving out local species? Is it a good thing for parents to ‘pick and choose’ the genetic traits they want in a child? And what effect will such decisions have on society as a whole?

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