The Orchid Grower
A Juvenile Science Adventure Novel
The Orchid Grower
A Juvenile Science Adventure Novel about Orchids and Genetic Engineering
What is Genetic Engineering
A Few Scientific Facts
... “Who’s Professor Spike?” Joab asked, recalling the name the inspector had mentioned.
“Professor Jonathan Spike is a senior researcher at the university who also occasionally does some work at the farm. Only thirty-six and already a professor. I can assure you,” said their mother, heaving a sigh, “that at your age he read books instead of—”
“What exactly does he do at the farm, Mom?”
“He comes once a week to share his huge knowledge with us.”
“And he’s also an expert on orchids?”
“Professor Spike,” said their mother admiringly, “is an expert on anything concerning the natural sciences, and much more. It’d be better for you, Joab and Dina, to follow his example rather than that dwarfish footballer…what’s his name?”
“Maradona,” said Dina with a spurt of laughter.
Joab pinched his sister’s hand with pleasure.
“You were talking about the professor’s fields of expertise, Mom.”
“There are so many of them, sweetie. To the best of my knowledge, he is, among other things, an expert on orchids, but his real field is…genetic engineering.”
“Genetic engineering,” their mother explained, “is a science that enables us to change the hereditary features of plants, animals and even human beings.”
“I don’t understand a word.”
“Well, let’s take orchids, for example. You know orchids couldn’t grow in our garden, because they are not fit for desert life, and—”
“Orchids are not endemic to the desert,” Joab interrupted in a knowing tone. “Exactly, Joby,” his mother said in amazement. “Orchids are not endemic to the desert. But, with the help of genetic engineering, we can change that, and maybe some day we’ll have lovely Anatolian orchids in our garden, who knows?”
Joab's eyes opened wide. “In Hannah’s garden, too? I…I…mean in any garden in…in…Di…Dimona, Mom?”
“If you really want to understand,” said their mother, “you have to know something about genetics.”
“Go on, Mom.”
“All the plants, animals and human beings in the world are made up of very little cells that can only be seen under a microscope, okay?”
“Every cell has a nucleus—a central part—that holds the chromosomes. These chromosomes store the hereditary information that is responsible for the features of every living creature, like eye color, the length of your nose, Joby, or maybe the height of a plant.”
“Very interesting, indeed.”
“The chromosomes are made up of a very important complex chemical known as DNA. The DNA molecules are arranged in different patterns, and that’s what determines features. For example, one pattern could mean blue eyes and another pattern could mean green eyes. Okay?”
“The genetic code,” said Dina eagerly.
“Exactly,” her mother said, pleased. “A chromosome contains quite a lot of DNA, and therefore it’s responsible for many features. But the little bit of DNA in a chromosome that determines each individual feature is called a gene. In other words, the gene is the smallest unit of heredity.”
“Not the kind you wear, Joby.” His mother smiled. “These genes are spelled differently: G-E-N-E. Playing with genes is what genetic engineering is all about.”
“Now I understand,” said Joab, excited, “why Professor Spike is so smart…he probably plays with his own genes.”
At that, Dina burst out laughing.
Joab yanked one of her plaits.
“Ow!” she cried, struggling from his grip.
“What’s gotten into you?” scolded his mother.
“Genetic engineering, Mom.”
“Genetic engineering doesn’t work like that,” she explained. “If you want to create a desert Anatolian orchid, for instance, you first have to take a little cell from a plant that is endemic to the desert, say a cactus, and then extract from its chromosomes the right gene or genes that are responsible for the cactus’s fitness for desert life, like its ability to thrive on little water with a lot of sun, and so on.
“Then you have to transfer those genes to the chromosomes of an ordinary Anatolian orchid cell. Finally, you have to grow this new cell, and it begins to duplicate until we get a little sprout, and then a full-fledged desert Anatolian orchid. That parent plant will reproduce, and so one day we’ll have a new generation of Anatolian desert orchids in our garden.”
“I’m afraid, Joby,” said Dina, still laughing, “that it’s a little too late for you to play with your genes and be smart.”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to create desert orchids and have them in our garden, Mom!” Joab exclaimed, ignoring Dina’s remark.
“I’m afraid we couldn’t. Genetic engineering might sound simple, but the technique of transferring genes, and especially growing cells, is very complicated and only specially trained scientists with very sophisticated expensive laboratory equipment can do it.”
“Like Professor Spike?”
“Exactly, like Professor Spike, sweetie.”
“But why would someone want to make a desert orchid?”
“That’s a very good question. You have to understand that having orchids in our garden is not the main purpose of genetic engineering. Of course, if you sold unique tropical orchids all over the world you could get very rich. But, most important, genetic engineering can enable scientists to create things like new nutritious grains that can grow in desert areas where the population doesn’t have enough food. And, of course, it can be used in medicine and other important fields. There is a very interesting site about the Human Genome Project. If you’re good, maybe I’ll tell you about it one day.”
“The human ge…ge…what?”
“The Human Genome Project, sweeties. The Goal of the Human Genome Project—the HGP—is to identify and map all the 30,000 genes in human DNA. This enables researchers like Professor Spike to pinpoint errors in human genes that cause disease. The ultimate goal is to use this information to correct these errors in order to treat, cure and prevent the thousands of diseases that afflict humankind.
“This kind of medicine is called gene therapy. The project was begun in 1990 by the U.S. government and is supposed to be completed in 2003.”
“Then,” said Dina, “one day I’ll be a famous genetic engineer—and rich, of course, with heaps of money and jewelry, and—”
“Speaking of jewelry, my young heroes,” their mother said, interrupting Dina’s fantasies, “I understand you found Hannah’s jewelry box, but what about the jewelry itself?”
“The box was empty,” said Dina, “but on the bottom we found an…an…”
Joab suddenly had a dreadful fit of coughing.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to wolf down your food? You are going to choke some day. And you,” said their mother, glaring at Dina, “what are you so pleased with yourself for? Your plate is still full. You haven’t eaten a thing…yes, Dina, what was on the bottom of the jewelry box?”
“It was a…a.…” ...
* This is an excerpt from The Orchid Grower - A juvenile science adventure novel about orchids and genetic engineering.