Genetic Engineering in Animals

Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

In this lesson, we will explore genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms. We will learn what types of animals are genetically engineered and why it is done.

Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified Organisms

Have you ever wished you could mix two of your favorite animals and produce a super cool hybrid? What if you could take the speed of a tiger and put it in a pig? This would create a very unique and interesting new species. Although scientists do not mix species for fun, there is an area of science that focuses on changing the DNA of organisms.

Genetic engineering is when the genetic makeup of an organism is altered by inserting, deleting, or changing specific pieces of DNA in order to change or add a characteristic. Once altered these organisms are referred to as genetically modified organisms, and are often called GMOs for short.

If DNA is inserted, it can come from another individual with the desired characteristic, a different species, or could be artificially produced. Most animal research that involves genetic engineering is done for advancements in medicine and for the creation of exotic animals.


Genetic Engineering for Medicine

Genetic engineering of animals (especially mice) has helped make several medical advancements that help humans survive and stay healthy. These animals often have their DNA altered so that they are more similar to humans. This allows researchers to use these animals as models so they can see how diseases advance and also how medications work.

Genetically engineered animals are used to grow cells, tissues, and organs that can be taken from the animal and transplanted into a human that needs the part. Genetically engineered animals are also used to test the progression and medications for such human diseases as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and cancer.

For Alzheimer's research, the nematode worm is genetically engineered to have nerve cells that contain the APP gene. The gene APP codes for proteins that are linked to the creation of a sticky buildup around nerve cells, which is a characteristic of people with Alzheimer's disease. Scientists study how the nematode cells that come in contact with the APP gene die. This helps them monitor the disease in the worms and can help understand the progression of the disease in humans.

Some animals are genetically engineered to create human antibodies and proteins that are then extracted and given to a sick person who cannot produce these substances on their own. People that suffer from Type 1 diabetes can not produce their own insulin. Through genetic engineering, scientists are able to create yeast or bacterial cells that can produce it instead.

GMOs make it possible to produce substances, like insulin, at a cheaper and quicker rate than can be done in a lab alone.

Mice used for research
lab mouse

Creating Exotic Animals

Some types of genetic engineering are less practical and more for novelty. GloFish are an example of how genetic engineering has been used to create an exotic animals. To create GloFish, zebrafish were genetically altered by inserting the genes from sea anemones and jellyfish. The genes activated fluorescent proteins in the zebrafish that made it possible for the fish to glow.

Some cats have also been genetically engineered to reduce human allergic reactions. It is possible to 'silence' the gene that codes for the cat allergen, and as a result create a cat that is hypoallergenic and will not make people have allergic reactions.

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