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The Era of Editing
Can you edit your genes?
Current advances suggest that you, yes you, can edit your genes.
Recent scientific developments suggest humanity is entering a new period: the era of gene-editing. This is not limited to humans though; gene-editing can be done to any organisms with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). But what garners most attention across news outlets are discussions of a Chinese scientist’s work on twin baby girls to create HIV resistance. But how this resistance was created is confusing.
DNA is the building block for the living world around us, including humans. Appearances are “encoded” or described in DNA. It tells bodies how to look and what processes must occur to create the body. In this way, DNA is a recipe to construct living organisms. DNA may tell plants to make red flowers rather than pink or humans to have curly rather than straight hair. Similar to a cooking recipe, DNA describes the ingredients needed and how to use them.
These descriptions and methods from DNA are “encoded” in the ordering of four different small molecules known as nucleic acids. Changes in this order often lead to changes in the ingredients needed and/or the processes they are used in. Flowers may then change color or hair may change shape.
These changes can be paralleled in cooking recipes by needing different ingredients or using them differently. If the recipe calls for butter instead of margarine, the flavor of a food will change. Similarly, if butter should be melted before use, it will mix differently than solid.
Gene-editing introduces said changes in DNA. Gene-editing is the process through which DNA is inserted, deleted, or replaced. It can change the ingredients needed and/or how they should be used. It allows humans to change characteristics of organisms. For example, we may desire HIV resistance as the Chinese scientist did, or like red flowers over pink. In the case of HIV resistance, the researchers disabled a specific gene—in other words, they removed the ingredient from the recipe.
Gene-editing, much like editing a recipe, can happen in numerous ways. Pens and white out or pencils and erasers are used for recipes to add an ingredient or change a step. Similarly, we can edit genes using numerous different techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFN), or Transcription Activator-Life Effector Nucleases (TALENs).
In all, gene-editing represents a process through which we can change the recipe for organisms, including ourselves!