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Artificial manipulation, modification, and recombination of DNA or other nucleic-acid molecules in order to modify an organism or population of organisms. The term initially meant any of a wide range of techniques for modifying or manipulating organisms through heredity and reproduction. Now the term denotes the narrower field of recombinant-DNA technology, or gene cloning, in which DNA molecules from two or more sources are combined, either within cells or in test tubes, and then inserted into host organisms in which they are able to reproduce. This technique is used to produce new genetic combinations that are of value to science, medicine, agriculture, or industry. Through recombinant-DNA techniques, bacteria have been created that are capable of synthesizing human insulin, human interferon, human growth hormone, a hepatitis-B vaccine, and other medically useful substances. Recombinant-DNA techniques, combined with the development of a technique for producing antibodies in great quantity, have made an impact on medical diagnosis and cancer research. Plants have been genetically adjusted to perform nitrogen fixation and to produce their own pesticides. Bacteria capable of biodegrading oil have been produced for use in oil-spill cleanups. Genetic engineering also introduces the fear of adverse genetic manipulations and their consequences (e.g., antibiotic-resistant bacteria or new strains of disease). See alsobiotechnology, molecular biology.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on genetic engineering, visit Britannica.com.