Not long ago, if you were diabetic, the insulin your doctor prescribed would have come from a pig. If you required human growth hormone, it would have come from human cadavers, a source that is costly, not to mention a little creepy. Now, these and other medicines can be made by specially-modified bacteria, called transgenic bacteria. These single-celled organisms have foreign genes alongside their own DNA. They live and reproduce like ordinary bacteria, but they also do a bit of extra duty, and produce human proteins for medicines and vaccines.

Transgenic (GM) plants are those that have been genetically modified using recombinant DNA technology. This may be to express a gene that is not native to the plant or to modify endogenous genes. The protein encoded by the gene will confer a particular trait or characteristic to that plant. The technology can be utilized in a number of ways, for example to engineer resistance to abiotic stresses, such as drought, extreme temperature or salinity, and biotic stresses, such as insects and pathogens, that would normally prove detrimental to plant growth or survival. The technology can also be used to improve the nutritional content of the plant, an application that could be of particular use in the developing world.

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