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is a fancy word for building something. So genetic engineering
(often just called GE) is building something with genes.
Clever scientists have learned to spot which gene does what
in making a new organism. They've found out that simple
organisms like bacteria
or viruses often have genes which are useful because
they can be snipped out and put -- spliced
-- into plant genes. Doing this could give the plant special
new abilities like resisting disease. But this can be rather
like grabbing a large scorpion so it can't nip you with
its claws. You know it's safe to handle since its claws
can't reach you but - ow! - it's got a sting in its tail
you didn't know about. There may be a 'sting in the tail'
which comes from splicing strange genes into other organisms
- from viruses to plants, for example. No-one can be certain
what will happen. It is unpredictable.
Genes can do unexpected and unintended things and nobody can ever be quite sure what. So it is wise to be very careful.
And there's more! Plants have been engineered which use up nitrogen fertilisers more effectively. This not only means that farmers need less expensive fertiliser but also helps slow climate change. Why? Because nitrogen fertilisers produce a lot of nitrous oxide gas which is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Around 6 percent of warming is due to this gas.
Some plants -- legumes like peas and beans -- can 'fix' the nitrogen they need directly from the air. If all plants could do that, there'd be no need for nitrogen fertilisers at all, so no nitrous oxide pollution.
Sounds great, doesn't it?