Genetic Engineering & Insulin Production

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  • 0:04 Overview of DNA
  • 1:00 Genetic Engineering
  • 2:20 Insulin and Diabetes
  • 3:39 The Genetic…
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christie Spadafora

Christie has a B.S. and an M.S. in Biology. She teaches life and chemical science courses at college, high school, and middle school levels in MA.

This lesson provides an introduction to genetic engineering, including its definition, the tools it requires, and the types of products it can be used to create. This lesson focuses on one of its most common products - insulin.

Overview of DNA

Toy. Joy. Boy. Bay. Day. Lay. Lady. All it takes is a tiny change of just a letter or two, and you suddenly have a whole new word with a whole new meaning. Our alphabet uses just 26 letters to make thousands of words in English alone.

Living organisms are programmed in a similar way. DNA relies on four different nucleotides - called A, T, G, and C - that are strung together in sequences millions of nucleotides long. These unique sequences are responsible for coding traits, from the color of your eye to a sea turtle's shell.

A mutation is a change to just one or several nucleotides. Mutations can be great, creating something like a new hair color or even disease resistance, but can also cause disease or even death. This happens naturally but is also something that scientists have learned to harness to benefit humans.

Genetic Engineering

Scientists have discovered ways to manipulate DNA sequences in the laboratory. This process is called genetic engineering, which is the process of purposefully coding for desirable traits or products.

Like most processes, genetic engineering requires several tools. Word processing software comes with several tools, like cut, copy, and paste, to allow us to manipulate chunks of words, moving them around as we please. Genetic engineers have similar tools to allow them to manipulate DNA sequences.

Scientists use restriction enzymes to cut pieces of DNA wherever they want. Restriction enzymes are the microscopic scissors of the DNA world. Each one of these tiny enzymes can only cut at a specific sequence. Luckily, there are many, so a scientist can use whichever restriction enzyme he or she needs to make a specific cut. When it's time to put specific pieces of DNA together, scientists reach for another enzyme called DNA ligase, which is the microscopic glue of the DNA world.

In theory, there is little limit to what scientists can code for via genetic engineering. Some countries have established laws controlling fetal genetic manipulations. However, many countries, including the United States, have allowed genetic engineering to be used to produce medicines. One of these is insulin. Let's review a bit about insulin and diabetes.

Insulin and Diabetes

When you eat an apple, a stack of pancakes, or a piece of candy, your body releases a protein hormone called insulin, which takes the sugar and turns it into other things, like energy. Insulin pathways are quite complicated, and several things can go wrong. Some people are unable to produce insulin at all, while others become sensitive to the insulin they do produce, negating the effect of any insulin they do make.

These people are called diabetics, and suffer from a group of diseases called diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, 9.3% of Americans had diabetes in 2012, and rates are on the rise.

Diabetes treatment has come a long way. Initially, in the early 1900s, doctors treated diabetes by recommending starvation, and diabetics literally starved to death. Luckily, scientists soon discovered that extracting insulin from another source and injecting it into diabetics was a much better treatment.

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