In one method of altering the genes of living cells, scientists insert a new gene into a virus-like organism. This organism is then allowed to enter the cells and insert the new gene into the genome. Human genetic engineering uses two applications to do this: somatic and germline. It is important to note the distinction between these two applications.

Somatic engineering (from the Greek word “soma,” which means “body”) targets specific genes in specific organs and tissues without affecting the genes in the eggs or sperm (depending upon the gender of the person). The aim of this type of human genetic engineering is to treat or cure an existing condition. It does not alter the individual’s entire genetic makeup as a report for the Genetics and Public Policy Center explains.

Read: Beating Cancer Before it Beats Us

The other type of human genetic engineering is germline, which targets the genes in eggs, sperm, or embryos in very early stages of development. This means that the genetic modifications that take place affect every cell created afterwards in the developing embryo’s body. Germline HGM also means that the modifications are passed on to all future generations if the individual goes on to have offspring. Obviously, germline HGM tends to be more controversial because the introduction of the gene alters future reproduction, whereas somatic HGM only affects the individual on which it is performed.

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