Genetic Engineering: The Past, Present, and Future

By: Norell Hadzimichalis, Phd

Inside this Article

This most pleasant, easy to read, and informative article takes you on an even easier to follow journey from a basic definition of genetic engineering through a couple of interesting historical highlights, then quickly moves you from an understanding of how genetic engineering is done, to its applications in the real world now and in the future.  In closing Dr. Hadzimichalis provides a few thoughtful remarks on today’s ethical and regulatory considerations.

  • Introduction ✓
  • Historical Perspective ✓
  • Technical Methods
  •    - Recombinant DNA
  •    - Gene guns, Microinjection, and Electro-and Chemical-poration
  • Current Applications
  •    - Medically relevant applications
  •    - Agriculturally Relevant Applications
  •    - Environmentally Relevant Applications
  •    - Research Tool and Other Incredible Applications
  • Future Applications
  •     – “Medically” Relevant Future Applications
  •     – Agriculturally Relevant Future Applications
  •     – Environmentally Relevant Future Applications
  • Roadblocks


In humans, as with any other organism, genetic engineering refers to any changes in genetic makeup that result from the direct manipulation of DNA using various technical methods. While this term is used often in mainstream media, much of the general population does not have a clear understanding of its meaning, current uses, and potential applications. The process of genetic engineering is intended to produce a useful or desirable characteristic in an organism and on a molecular level and may include additions, deletions, or targeted changes to the genome. More simply put, genetic engineering involves cutting, pasting, and/or editing DNA to produce a valuable effect. Interestingly, these alterations can involve introduction of genetic material from either the same or from different type of organism.

Historical Perspective

A variety of methods may be employed to produce a genetically modified organism (GMO). Historically, and still today, humans have indirectly modified the genomes of other species to produce desired “products” including domesticated animals and high yield plants varieties.  By selecting the seeds from the best produce for next year’s crop and using the hardiest steers to fertilize the herd, food staples became gradually more robust and abundant.

However, breakthrough experiments from Hersey and Chase in 1952 confirming that DNA is the vessel for our genetic code, initiated further characterization of this biological macromolecule and prompted an in depth examination into methods to specifically modify it (\). This has decreased the time it takes to appreciably improve an organism from decades and even centuries down to weeks and months.

Dr. Paul Berg and colleagues are credited with creating the first ever recombinant DNA molecule (molecules that are DNA sequences resulting from the use of laboratory methods), published in 1972. In this study, they described a novel way to combine DNA from different organisms and in fact, successfully combined DNA from a monkey virus (SV40) and a bacterial virus (lambda phage) ( For this work, Dr. Berg was awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize in chemistry for “his fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, with particular regard to recombinant-DNA” (

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