Questions for discussion:
- How do the images used in the animation help to illustrate concepts like mutation and gene editing?
- What do you think about this statement? “While the technology offers exciting new opportunities, it also comes with risks and many legal and ethical implications.”
An organism’s genetic material or genome is made of long molecules of DNA.
These carry instructions on how to build that organism like a manual, which tells all the cells in the body how to behave.
DNA contains genes, which provide instructions on how to build different parts of an organism – such as light detection components in the eye or oxygen-carrying structures in red blood cells.
Sometimes, DNA can change, creating new and different versions of a gene. This is called a gene mutation. These mutations mean that different individuals can carry different versions of the same gene. Different eye colour is one example of this.
In agriculture, genetic variations have been used for centuries to select better versions of crops and animals.
Around 10,000 years ago, indigenous American farmers began growing a grass called teosinte, replanting the plants with a rare and desirable characteristic such as a single stalk or a cob with large seeds. As a result, over thousands of years, this ancient grass has become the maize plant we know today.
In 2012, new gene editing technology called CRISPR was developed. This makes it possible to more quickly and easily insert, delete or replace individual genes in precise locations within DNA or to switch genes off altogether.
Today, gene editing is beginning to be used for new approaches in research, medicine and agriculture.
In medicine, some of the genetic diseases scientists may be able to use gene editing for include haemophilia, cataracts, cystic fibrosis and more.
In agriculture, gene editing is being used to create more hardy and productive plants and animals – introducing desirable characteristics more quickly than the agricultural selection of the past.
In conservation, researchers have identified the possibility of using gene drives that ensure the rapid spread of a gene throughout a population. This could be useful for spreading malaria resistance in mosquitoes or introducing a sterilisation gene into a pest as part of a pest eradication programme.
Gene editing technology is getting cheaper and easier so is being used more frequently. While it can make more precise changes to genetic material than earlier techniques, there can still be unintended effects.
As a result, while the technology offers exciting new opportunities, it also comes with risks and many legal and ethical implications.
To find out more, visit royalsociety.org.nz/gene-editing.
Royal Society Te Apārangi