Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is a vital area on the development of bioweapons, and one area where Cuba has had surprising achievements.

Genetic engineering refers to a set of technologies that artificially move functional genes across species boundaries to produce novel organisms. The techniques involve highly sophisticated manipulations of genetic material and other biological important chemicals. Genes are special chemicals that work as sets of blueprints to determine an organism's traits. Moving genes from one organism to another moves those traits.

Through genetic engineering, genes can be moved across natural boundaries. The resultant organisms can have new combinations of genes-and therefore combinations of traits-that are not found in nature and, indeed, not possible through natural mechanisms. Such a technology is radically different from traditional plant and animal breeding.

Basically, genetic engineering means that the DNA material of any source, living or dead cell, can be isolated, identified, altered, and introduced into the chromosome, (DNA), whithin any living cell. Most of the work involves isolation and identification of genes- the components within DNA which contain all the information for the synthesis of everything in every living cell.

The information in a gene is a code. This information is relayed by a messenger. This intermediate messenger is called messenger RNA (mRNA). There is an enzyme which reads the DNA and makes this special kind of RNA from it. This mRNA then travels to the special machinery inside the cell, called a ribosome, and there the message is translated. The translation of mRNA leads to the synthesis of a protein.

Genetic engineering allows one to actually change the sequence of the DNA to allow a human gene, for example, to be expressed by bacterial enzymes and ribosomes. Thus, if one can get this gene into the chromosome of a bacteria ( even though the gene encodes information for a human protein) or, if one alters certain of the gene regions to make these regions compatible for bacterial enzyme interaction, the result is important.

Then this human gene will be expressed in a bacterium, and a human protein can be made in this way. The bacterium usually used for introduction of foreign genes is a very special laboratory strain of Escherchia coli, or E coli. Genetic engineering is wonderful and powerful. But, there is great potential for misuse.

Genetic engineering can be used to modernize existing biological weapons and to develop genetically altered pathogens, resistant to antibiotics and vaccines. The main purposes when genetic engineering is used to alter the genetic makeup of a disease-producing bacteria are: to find the right mechanism for transporting genes into the DNA of another microorganism; to achieve the transfer without reducing the bacteria's virulence.

Genetic engineering can produce new kind of weapons based on chemical substances produced naturally by the human body. They could damage the nervous system, the heart, and produce death. For example, peptides are strings of amino acids which perform various functions in our bodies. One important group of peptides is called regulatory peptides, and is activated during times of stress, anger, love, fear, or to fight disease. Some regulatory peptides affect the central nervous system, and produce heart attacks.

Peptides are regulators of the activity of other molecules, like proteins. Thus, there are peptides with hormonal activity, others with antibiotic activity. Genetic engineering has found a way to duplicate in the lab the genes for certain regulatory peptides, with known toxic properties.

One of these, when present in large quantities, is capable of damaging the myelin sheaths protecting the thousands of nerve fibers that transmit electric signals from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. Genetic engineering synthesizes the genes that code for the production of myelin toxin, reproduce them artificially in the lab, and insert them into bacterial cells. A toxin weapon is created.

Certain countries, Cuba, for example, use their genetic engineering facilities to improve biological weapons. Their production can then be concealed in the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industry. Genetic engineering has then, as its main objective, to improve industrial production scale-up techniques; microbial production rates; yields of viable microorganisms; virulence; and resistance of microorganisms to antibiotics.

Genetic engineering is also used to maximize viability of an agent during dissemination and increased survivability of biological aerosols, and to enhance the ability of microorganisms to degrade the target's natural defenses.

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