Life, and by the extent of the genetics that control it, is an incredibly complex matter that scientists have worked to understand for centuries. As of recently, there has been incredible progress towards reaching this understanding, and we can not only understand how genetics function, but how to alter their functions as well.
This revolutionary process is known as gene editing and has opened up countless possibilities for the future of science and medicine. So, how does gene editing work, what are its uses, and what is its potential impact on the world as a whole?
How Gene Editing Works
As the name would suggest, the gene editing process fundamentally changes the genetic makeup of the subject, allowing scientists to activate some traits while suppressing others. Typically, one of three processes will be performed: insertion, giving an organism new genetic traits, deletion, getting rid of potentially harmful genetic traits, or substitution, swapping one trait for another.
When undergoing any of these processes, a target gene is chosen. From there, the next few steps vary depending on which treatment method is being used, but the outcome is more or less the same: the subject’s genetic code is somehow changed, and assuming the treatment is successful, this change will begin to express itself.
As for gene editing methods, there have been several iterations over the years, with some more effective than others. One of the earliest gene editing methods was through the use of restriction enzymes, which work by lowering the functionality of the target gene.
Next came zinc finger nucleases, or ZFNs, which were far more efficient than their predecessor, allowing for more delicate work to be done. While they revealed gene editing’s immense medical potential, their complexity prevented them from being used on a larger scale.
These were followed by transcription activator-like effector nucleases or TALENs. TALENs see frequent use in the agriculture industry, where they’re used to fortify crops, allowing for larger, healthier, and more profitable yields.
Though they were able to be used in medicine, they were once again prohibitively complex and expensive.
This is where the latest iteration of gene editing technology, CRISPR, comes in. A much more recent development, CRISPR’s potential for quick, effective, and cost-efficient gene editing has drawn the attention of countless scientists.
It’s highly customizable, even more so than previous methods, meaning it can be used in a wide variety of scenarios, and easily adapt to the task at hand. However, the science of gene editing still has a long way to go, and new innovations are made with each passing day.
The future looks bright for this scientific revolution!
Applications of Gene Editing
Needless to say, the ability to alter genetic code is extremely useful in a wide variety of fields. However, the two most prominent are the agricultural and medical industries.
As mentioned earlier, gene editing can be used in agriculture to produce stronger and more nourishing crops, leading to a greater food supply and wider distribution thereof.
Note that while they have many similarities, gene-edited crops and GMOs are actually quite different. GMOs typically have beneficial traits from other species, such as the ability to naturally defend themselves against pests.
However, gene editing is only used to alter traits within one species. For example, if one year’s crops develop a resistance to a common disease, the gene that caused that resistance may be preserved and spliced onto next year’s crops.
Unlike GMOs, gene-edited crops aren’t genetically distinct from regular crops, they’re just more resilient.
As for the medical industry, gene-editing technology is still very much in its experimental phase, but the results are promising. Perhaps one of its most incredible uses is in curing diseases that are otherwise permanent.
Through many experiments, scientists have discovered that certain genes responsible for type-1 diabetes can be removed from the subject’s DNA, either greatly reducing or eliminating symptoms if successful.
In addition, scientists have been able to isolate and remove genes that may allow HIV infection, making what is essentially a preemptive cure.
Gene editing isn’t just for treating diseases, however! There’s a possibility that we could use it to create perfect organ transplants!
Due to their anatomical similarities to humans, pigs have become a point of interest for researchers. Many wondered if it was possible to edit the pig’s genome such that its organs were interchangeable with a human’s.
As it turns out, by injecting a pig embryo with human stem cells, scientists could cause the pig to develop organs that were more or less indistinguishable from those of a human. Therefore, they concluded, it may be possible to create custom organ donations, both preventing a long wait for lifesaving care and reducing the risk of rejection.
It seems that the pig hybrid, known as a chimera, developed organs that matched the stem cell donor. This means that if used as an organ transplant, the body would be significantly less likely to treat it as a foreign body.
There’s no end to the possibilities if editing the human genome can be perfected. Imagine a world where countless life-threatening diseases are nothing but a distant memory, and the organ transplant waitlist is all but nonexistent.
Of course, due to the social and ethical implications of the practice, it’s important to proceed with caution, but nevertheless, a medical revolution seems to be just over the horizon.
Gene Editing Lab Necessities
As with any lab, gene editing labs require the proper equipment to ensure that all experiments are done safely and with as little interference as possible. This means you’ll need a number of safety and organization features before you can begin your work.
As for safety, fume hoods, partitions, and proper equipment storage are key. In some cases, experiments may produce noxious fumes that are harmful to breathe, and without proper ventilation, there’s no effective way to get rid of them.
You can combat this by adding fume hoods to disperse these harmful chemicals at key points around your laboratory. In addition, to keep potential hazards from spreading, partitions and equipment storage will allow you to cordon off hazardous areas, as well as ensure the equipment used there is safe and clean.
Of course, there’s also the matter of laboratory casework. Depending on the area of your lab you’re installing casework in, different types may work better than others.
For general use, stainless steel cabinets or antimicrobial cabinets are an excellent choice, helping to keep your lab safe and clean while lasting for years. However, when designing the cleanroom, you’ll want specialized cleanroom casework to ensure your lab space stays completely sterile.
Need Help Designing a Gene Editing Lab?
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