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Get the genes to grow
Genetic engineering

Get the genes to grow

20 Jun 2018 | 2:13 AM

Did you know that there are about, 3,000 cells in a single freckle on your face? And each one of those cells is a 5 foot molecule of DNA if you unfold it.

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Usha Albuquerque

Did you know that there are about, 3,000 cells in a single freckle on your face? And each one of those cells is a 5 foot molecule of DNA if you unfold it. Isn’t that amazing? So, too, is Dolly — the cloned sheep; perfectly round-shaped tomatoes; plants that fight pollution…This is the story of genetics. An ever-widening and stimulating science that is opening doors to our knowledge of living things. 

Every living thing, from the most simple to the most complex one, carries a genetic code, or blueprint, that determines precisely what traits it will have. 

Genetics is a precise science that enables us to find the most beneficial traits, and incorporate those into various organisms. It is the science that is already being used in agriculture with three crops — corn, soybean and cotton — that are largely genetically engineered. It is an expanding field that could enable you to produce a strain of rice that would carry a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine for AIDS, or a vaccine in a banana that can help infants in India fight disease? This is not science fiction, but the world of genetics, one of the most revolutionary and beneficial sciences today. 

Understanding the code

Genetic engineering is one of the most sophisticated and complicated fields that deals with the study of biological changes in living organisms. It is the branch of biotechnology that deals with the study of cells (smallest living unit), structural and functional unit of living organisms. Genetic engineering is the application of knowledge obtained from genetics to alter the reproduction and hereditary processes of organisms. It involves cloning, in-vitro fertilisation, species hybridisation or direct manipulation of the genetic material itself by the recombinant DNA technique. 

Work profile 

Genetic engineering helps engineers to study the behaviour of the DNA and gene in the body by using artificial methods. Engineers perform various activities such as extracting DNA from organisms, studying changes in the structure and putting it back into the organism, or into another organism. It is the modification of the genetic code through human manipulations. Genetic engineers study how traits and characteristics are transmitted through the generations, and how genetic disorders are caused. Their research involves researching the causes and discovering potential cures, if any. 

Genetics and genetic engineering are essentially  research-oriented fields, with applications in various areas such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and environment.

Where to work 

Some of the fields of work in genetic engineering

Medicine: In the medical field, genetics focusses on disease elimination, striving to understand the molecular basis of diseases and their cures. Varieties of pharmaceutical products are being structured using genetic engineering while working on formulations, medicines and vaccines to help deal with fatal diseases such as Hepatitis B, HIV-AIDs, small -pox and others. 

Agriculture  & Animal husbandry: In agriculture, genetic engineering is used to create genetically modified, (GM) crops or genetically improve the nutritional content of plants and produce disease and pesticide resistant crops. Numerous kinds of genetically engineered, high yielding animal breeds have also come up, which has increased the output of dairy products as well as meat products. 

Environment: Control of industrial air pollution, waste and effluent treatment are also major areas of work for genetic engineers. They determine the effects of possible biological, physical or chemical contaminants to the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the land on which we live.  

Academic research is technical, conducted more for expanding the horizons of knowledge than for application in specific areas of work. Academic research is conducted not only in medical and academic institutions, but also in some major pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

Getting in

To work as a qualified genetic engineer, you must have a graduate/PG degree in genetics or related fields such as biotechnology, molecular biology, microbiology or biochemistry, and for better career prospects, a doctorate (PhD) from a recognised university.

If you enjoy science, the basic groundwork preparation for entry into the fields of genetics and genetic  engineering is the science stream at the Plus II level, which would ideally be physics, chemistry, biology/ biotechnology, and/ or mathematics. There are a few courses in genetics/ genetic engineering at the undergraduate level, so the study of genetics, or genetic engineering covering the technology area is mostly at a master’s level through an MSc or MTech, followed by doctoral level research. Graduates with degrees in agriculture, veterinary science and animal husbandry, medical science, one or more of the life sciences, genetics, pharmacy, microbiology, botany, zoology, chemistry, biotechnology, chemical engineering or technology, agricultural engineering, food technology, human biology and allied subjects can get into an MSc or MTech in genetics, or genetic engineering.

Undergraduate and postgraduate courses in biotechnology may offer specialisation in genetic engineering. Some institutes offer courses in genetic engineering as a subsidiary in biotechnology, microbiology, biochemistry streams. 

As the work in genetic engineering is largely related to scientific research, it becomes essential to have a good academic background in science. Hard work and high level of intelligence with a scientific bent of mind, determination, perseverance, imagination, innovative attitude, ability to work for long hours, originality, team spirit are some important essentials for becoming a successful biotechnologist.

So, if you are inspired to work on research that might produce a medicine to cure cancer, or prevent mental disorders in human beings, and other path breaking new fields of science, then genetics or genetic engineering may be the transforming career for you.

Institute watch

Here are some of the universities offering specialisation in genetics and genetic engineering, as well as related specialisations such as molecular biology, enzyme technology, tissue culture, cell and development biology, DNA technology and so on include: 

  • The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi 
  • Benaras Hindu University, Varanasi 
  • M.S. University, Baroda 
  • Poona University; 
  • Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar 
  • Panjab University, Chandigarh 
  • G.B. Pant University of 

Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar

  • IIT, Delhi
  • IIT, Kharagpur
  • Jadavpur University, Kolkata 
  • Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad
  • SRM University (BTech, MTech and PhD in Genetic Engineering) 
  • Indian Institute of Science, (IISc), Bangalore 
  • Centre for Plant Molecular Biology, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore
  • BanasthaliVidyapeeth, Rajasthan
  • Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyala, Indore

Job prospects

Since genetic engineering is a highly research-oriented field, a PhD degree is mostly required for appointments to research and development organisations, pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology industries, academic institutions and so on. 

Research organisations in the government and private sector employ genetists for conducting appropriate research and development studies for application in the areas of concern such as disease prevention, pollution control, waste management, and various chemical processes for increased productivity.

Research organisations that recruit genetic engineers include:

  • CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) 
  • ICAR (Indian Council for Agricultural Research) 
  • Center for Cellular & Molecular Biology 
  • Institute of Microbial Technology, Chandigarh 
  • Central Drug Research Institute (multiple locations across India) 
  • National Institute of Nutrition, Bangalore 
  • Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, Pune 
  • Central Potato Research Institute 
  • Tobacco Research Institute, Rajahmundry
  • The National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi
  • Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad
  • Biochemical Engineering Research and Process Development Centre, Chandigarh 
  • Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, Delhi 

Genetic engineers with MSc /MTech degrees can find employment in 

  • Pharmaceutical and medical industries
  • FMCG companies
  • Food processing companies, and those involved in bioprocess technology,
  • Bio agriculture (Transgenic varieties, bio-fertilisers, bio-pesticides)

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, scientists have been working on the application of genetic engineering in healthcare. We already live in a world of designer babies, and now human genetic tests are available that have enabled couples who conceive a child using in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to have embryos screened for the genetic mutations that cause cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, spinal muscular atrophy, and a range of other conditions. Major research is also underway in the genetics of cancer. It won’t be long before doctors will be able to test for and diagnose cancers based on genetic characteristics. Further into the future, cancer gene therapies may also result. There are huge possibilities in this fascinating world of genetics. 

Skill set 

To be a successful genetic engineer, one must have:

  • A sharp analytical mind
  • Aptitude for research
  • High levels of concentration
  • Eye for detail
  • Physical stamina toput in long hours of work
  • Ability to work in a team
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