Practical Applications & Safety Concerns of DNA Technology

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Our discovery of DNA was a big deal, but what technologies has it led to? And could they be dangerous? Learn about DNA technology, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is DNA Technology?

Your body contains approximately 15 trillion cells, and those cells are all dying. Each cell only lives a certain amount of time before it is replaced by a brand new cell. In fact, every seven years your entire body has been replaced by new cells. The you that existed seven years ago is not made of the same stuff as the you that exists now. But how does your body know how to recreate those cells?

Your body knows because it follows a strict blue print - a set of rules that explain how your body is supposed to be built. Those instructions are found coded into a molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. They're found in most forms of life on Earth and are famously shaped like a double-helix.

DNA Structure
DNA Structure

DNA technology are the ways that we humans use our knowledge of DNA to our advantage. From genetic engineering to crime solving to nanotechnology, we've been able to use DNA to do some amazing things. In this lesson, we're going to go through a few of those applications of DNA technology and talk about some of the safety concerns around them.

Applications of DNA Technology

Perhaps the most major application of DNA technology is genetic engineering. This is the process by which we modify an organisms DNA using biotechnology to change its properties. We can use it to produce new and improved organisms (called GMOs, or genetically modified organisms) for specific purposes.

The most famous examples of this all come from agriculture: we've grown seedless grapes, crops that can survive in different environments, and crops that produce larger yields, among others. Such crops have helped fight against starvation in poor parts of the world, and allowed us to grow more food on less land. However, GMOs are not without their controversies and concerns, which we'll talk about later in this lesson.

GMOs have made a difference to increasing food output in the world
GMOs have made a difference to increasing food output in the world

Another famous use of DNA is in crime solving. This is where forensic scientists take samples of DNA found at the scene of a crime, and use it to identify the person who was there. We call this DNA profiling, and it is a growing field. DNA can be extracted from saliva, hair, blood, semen or flakes of skin. DNA profiling can also be used for paternity testing, and to identify bodies during wars.

DNA Profiling
DNA Profiling

Finally, DNA analysis can be used to predict the likelihood of getting a disease before it happens. As we learn more and more about DNA, we've started to discover genes that increase the tendency to get certain diseases. When you know about the possibility, you can take action to try to prevent it, or to get early treatment. There is still a long way to go in this area, but there is great potential to improve medicine through analysis of DNA.

Safety Concerns of DNA Technology

Unfortunately, despite all the benefits of DNA technology, there are some controversies and safety concerns. The largest of these is probably with GMOs. There have been numerous science fiction stories of how humans accidentally created a virus that wiped out humans, or a crop that turned out to be dangerous in the long term. Reading books like I Am Legend can make genetic modification seem pretty terrifying. Many GMOs that are involved in producing our food today are relatively untested and unregulated, and so a lot of people have concerns.

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