Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Fruit fly can be upgraded with artificial DNA

Genes are individual packets containing instructions to produce a specific protein, and they form the foundation of life and evolution. A lot of genetic functions have been discovered by investigating fruit flies: they function as a so-called model organism which scientists have freely used to experiment with. Inducing genetic changes lead to visible, or invisible, changes, and that has helped us a great deal in genetic research. Now, British scientists have managed to modify fruit flies by adding DNA to their genome. This made the little flies produce a modified protein, paving the way for 'DNA upgrades'.

Modification
In order to add 'custom' DNA, the scientists used bacteria capable of inserting DNA in a genome. Normally, viruses use such means to replicate themselves, by hijacking the cellular machinery, so that their own genetic material is copied and used to produce proteins. Apparently, the scientists found a bacterium that could be utilized to achieve the same thing in a controlled fashion. To be precise, they added nine building blocks of DNA to the fruit fly's genome, which is read and translated into three protein building blocks.
Protein
A cell makes proteins by reading parts of the DNA and using this information to put amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, in the right order. The British scientists modified an existing protein by adding three more amino acids to the structure, creating an artificial form. Fruit flies carrying the modified DNA, and the corresponding protein, had no discernible health problems or other issues, indicating that the modifications were successfully implemented.

Outlook
The experiment is basically a proof-of-concept that shows we may be able to modify DNA in order to create better functioning proteins. Examples include built-in protein parts that make an enzyme turn on or off in response to light, enabling us to control them from outside the body. Of course, we are still light years away before such techniques will be used for human beings, and it is not just because of technical or safety issues. Ethically speaking, one could ask whether it is a good idea to start improving or modifying humans. Still, modifying animals such as fruit flies for studies or production of useful proteins seems like a good idea. The same thing was already possible with bacteria, or even yeast, which are often used in experiments concerning genetic modification. Though, genetically speaking, it is harder to bend a bigger organism like a fly to your will.

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