Potential Evolutionary Impact of Genetic Engineering
In the micro view of evolutionary patterns, individuals may survive to produce gametes, some of which combine into zygotes that themselves develop into reproductively viable individuals which can disperse to new habitats. The machinery underlying this picture involves heritable characters that are transmitted from parents to offspring through DNA in chromosomes and organelles. This information is translated via RNA into proteins. Gametes can include novel DNA sequences formed by recombination of parental chromosomes, and/or by mutation. Microevolution can be thought of as small scale motion through an adaptive landscape, with a tendency for populations to get "trapped" at local fitness maxima.
Genetic engineering is a term encompassing many new technologies, such as plasmid or viral transformation of bacteria, gene insertion (gene guns, vectors etc.) into crop plants, site-directed mutagenesis, and gene therapy. Potential applications of these include improvements on input and output sides of crops, treatment of polluted sites, and curing genetic diseases.
The challenge of curing genetic diseases is to get a copy of a functional gene into each (appropriate) cell in an individual with a defective gene. The first successful application in humans was for adenosine deaminase deficiency (ADAD), and involved ex vivo insertion of a working AD gene by a retroviral vector into blood cells from patients. This led to similar attempts to cure other diseases, but with little success. Trying to understand why leads us to explore how retroviruses function and evolve.
Retroviruses carry their genome in RNA. They have proteins which allow them to bind to and enter host cells, and to reverse transcribe their RNA into DNA which they insert into the host genome. The host transcribes this "provirus" into viral mRNA's which get translated into virus proteins. These self-assemble into viral particles, and leave the cell, often without rupturing it.
Retroviral vectors are made by replacing the viral genome with an RNA copy of the target gene. Such a vector can get itself into a host cell, and (RT)-insert the RNA into the host genome, but since that RNA no longer codes for viral proteins, the process ends with this genetically enhanced host cell. Humans are not original in doing this: because retroviral reverse-transcriptase (RT) requires several strand transfers when generating the proviral DNA, recombination sometimes occurs, leading to virus particles carrying RNA coding for non-viral products, and possibly having additional non-viral proteins in their coats. These particles are still able to enter host cells and RT-insert their RNA into the host genome, but will not reproduce. In an infected host, viral numbers are high enough that such Natural Viral Vecors (NRVs) will be replicated by entering host cells already (or soon to be) infected by normal virus. Some of the virus particles produced in that host cell will likely include vector RNA. NRVs might explain how viruses escape the dead end posed by their gradual incorporation into host genome (which eventually gives the host and its offspring immunity to reinfection). A retrovirus must eventually switch host species to survive, and if a reasonable amount of blood is transferred from one species to another, it can carry many NRVs, some potentially much more suited to the new host than the original virus.
human interventions in evolution have involved micro-evolutionary timescales
and linear mechanisms. Genetic engineering uses some tools that resemble the
parallel evolution seen, for example, in retroviruses, and so safety assessments
of particular tools for particular uses should consider such less frequent
but equally important evolutionary mechanisms.
BIOL 606 Session, University of Alberta, March 1, 2000
2001 by Team C0123260
The Legenders , RJC, Singapore