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Discovering life and creating species.

— An article on the emerging field of synthetic biology and genetically modified organisms.

Research, I believe, has two facets – discovery and invention. A discovery of facts and the phenomena behind it often leads researchers to create articles/ ideas, either by applying the principles of the naturally occurring phenomena or by developing new principles that explain the new phenomena.

In this article I have written about discovering and inventing species.

Discovering life :

The latest estimation – the most precise calculation ever offered – of the total number of species on Earth states that 6.5 million species have been found on land and 2.2 million (about 25 percent of the total) dwelling in the ocean depths. Furthermore, the study, published by PLoS Biology, says a staggering 86% of all species on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued (0)

Scientists have successfully discovered a majority of the life species present on earth. They’ve also been successful in ‘rediscovering’ them. A science news website recently informed us that an international team of scientists has found one of the rarest and least known primates in Borneo, Miller’s Grizzled Langur, a species which was believed to be extinct or on the verge of extinction. The team’s findings, published in the American Journal of Primatology, confirm the continued existence of this endangered monkey and also reveal its new habitat that we were unaware of earlier.

Grizzled Langur. (Credit: Eric Fell) (Adapted from the website mentioned in the references)

Today, attempts to find life also outside our planet earth are in full swing. An entire branch of science, exobiology or astrobiology (the term astrobiology, however, includes the study of life on Earth, viewed in its astronomical context.), revolves around the development and testing of theories about extraterrestrial life. As a matter of fact, astronomers have realized that a planet about twice the size of Earth exists right in the middle of the “habitable zone” around its star, which is life-friendly and quite similar to our own planet. (2)  Interesting! Isn’t it?

This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech) (Adapted from the website as mentioned in the references)

Having spoken of ‘discovery of species’, I shall now focus on the ‘creation of species on earth’ – a very new area of research.

Courtesy the recent developments in science, scientists are now able to create  a variety of very useful genetically modified organisms.

Genetically modified organisms :

What are genetically modified organisms?

An organism whose genetic material has been modified or altered, especially   through genetic engineering techniques.

(Source: – )

Creation of genetically modified organisms generates a  lot of opportunities for researchers to study various areas such as evolution, drug delivery, diseases, energy production and many others.

A few examples include:

The fluorescent zebrafish (their colour is a result of GFP) are commonly studied to gain answers to important questions in genetics, molecular biology, and vertebrate development. Fluorescent zebrafish have been particularly helpful in understanding cellular disease and development, as well as cancer and gene therapy. (3)

Another wonderful invention is the creation of malaria resistant mosquito that can significantly reduce the damage due to malaria. University of Arizona entomologist Riehle put a gene in a mosquito to over-express a gene that had already been there, which converted the gene into an active state.

The mosquito’s gene, Akt, is involved in a number of processes, including lifespan, digestion, and reproduction. Therefore, it takes 3 to 4 months to create a genetically engineered mosquito that is completely immune to the malaria-causing parasite.“Insecticide-treated bed nets, or drugs to cure the malaria are effective ways [to prevent malaria], except resistance is developing against the parasites,” Riehle says.

In a span of 10 years, these genetically engineered mosquitoes shall emerge as a viable solution to the fight malaria. However, this is only possible if these mosquitoes can compete with the disease-ridden wild ones. A lot more work tin the lab is needed before these mosquitoes are made fit enough to infiltrate the wild population. “At this point, we don’t know the exact mechanism of how the parasites are being killed,” Riehle says. (4)

One of the mind blowing discoveries, I believe, is that of the transgenic line of monkeys carrying a gene encoding green fluorescent protein fully integrated into their DNA has been created for the first time. The research, published in the journal Nature, marks the first such feat in non-human primates and paves the way for developing new models of human diseases.(5)

Five transgenic marmoset offspring are born, (a) Hisui, (b) Wakaba, (c) Banko, (d) Kei (left) and Kou (right). When observed in UV, the skin on the soles of the feet glows green. (Credit: E. Sasaki et al 2009) (adapted from science daily website)

Five transgenic marmoset offspring are born, (a) Hisui, (b) Wakaba, (c) Banko, (d) Kei (left) and Kou (right). When observed in UV, the skin on the soles of the feet glows green. (Credit: E. Sasaki et al 2009) (adapted from science daily website)

Today Genetically modified organisms are also sold in markets to public. For example, transgenic zebrafish are sold under the brand Glofish. (6)

(Adapted from Glofish website

(Adapted from Glofish website

There are various reasons for which GMO have come up. This technique of modifying organisms has been widely applied in plants to get good yields and to increase pest resistance to reduce losses due to pest attacks. Genetic modification can also be used to create plants that are cold tolerant, saline tolerant and to increase the nutritional value of the food. (7) Of course, it has been applied to animals, too.

This technique is applicable in the pharmaceuticals industry, too. Medicines and vaccines are often costly to produce and require special storage conditions which are not available in few countries; hence, researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes, which are easy to ship, store and easy to administer than traditional injectable vaccines.

I have mentioned only the advantages of GMO. Despite the numerous benefits, the side effects of GMO cannot be ignored. Besides, the government has enforced heavy rules with regard to this making the task even more challenging.

Ethical  concerns :

There are various ethical issues concerned, one of them is based on animal welfare concerns, whether animals suffer or feel pain.

Those who believe that insects do not feel pain argue that manipulating insects has no intrinsic wrongness. For those who believe that insects feel pain, even if we consider the idea of animals that do not feel pain, we are still manipulating life for human purposes without considering the interests of the animal. (7*)

Another fact is that society is against transfer of animal gene into plants and it is also against modifying few animals which are of religious importance.

The debates on these issues are still going on today.

SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY  – A New area of biology

What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic Biology is
1) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and
2) the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.  (8)


Scientists have created an organism controlled by completely man-made DNA.

Using the tools of synthetic biology, scientists from the installed a completely artificial genome inside a host cell without DNA. The new genome invigorated the host cell, which began to grow and reproduce, albeit with a few problems.

The research marks a technical milestone in the synthesis and implantation of artificial DNA.  Researchers, expect the research will lead to cheaper drugs, vaccines and biofuels in several years.
This is the first synthetic cell that’s been made .They call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer.”

Scientists created a synthetic genome and injected it into an emptied bacterium cell, triggering it to life. ( ADAPTED FROM THE WEBSITE MENTIONED IN THE REFERENCES)

Scientists created a synthetic genome and injected it into an emptied bacterium cell, triggering it to life. ( ADAPTED FROM THE WEBSITE MENTIONED IN THE REFERENCES)






This article is being contributed by Ashwin Kumar and edited by Nishi Anand.


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