Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are powerful tools that help scientists study the foundation of life. The knowledge that can be created with them is the basis for applications everyone can benefit from. It can be the cure of a disease or the cure of hunger. The GMOs are made to be used in a laboratory, but the knowledge that is created with them is made for everyone.
What is a genetically modified organism and why do scientists need them?
Genetics means the DNA of a living thing, called organism. And the DNA is like the blueprint of life. It stores all the information that is necessary to build cells and helps them function in the way they are supposed to. In order to understand life and the development of an organism, scientists can change the genetic information. They can make a GMO and then test how the appearance or behavior of that organism changes, if parts of its DNA are changed. Even differences on the microscopic scale can be noticed.
How can scientist make a GMO and how do they use them for their experiments?
The making of a GMO follows basic principles, no matter the organism. Scientists can take the genetic blueprint from the living thing, into the lab. Where we can make changes to it and put it back into the creature. Then, we observe what happens. Since I work with plants, I chose them as an example to explain the whole process in more detail below.
I study the function of transcription factors in plants. Transcription factors are proteins that help individual cells to determine which part of the genetic information they need to use, so that they can do what they are supposed to. The transcription factors are like experts on a construction site. They instruct the builders and tell them where to do which kind of work and at which time. That is what we know transcription factors do and they do this in other organisms too, such as yourself. But different transcription factors have different specializations. And for the ones I study, we don’t know yet, which genetic information they control, or which functions they are involved in. One part of finding out about that, includes making GMOs. More precisely, I made the transcription factors glow inside the cells of the plant. The cells that glow, are the cells where they are needed. With that information, I have one piece of the puzzle. Together with other results I can solve my research question.
How does the process work precisely?
To make the GMO, I can take the DNA out of the plant. That can be from a leaf or the root, the rest of the plant stays intact. Every cell contains the same information, in form of DNA. By using several different chemicals, I can break the cells and separate the DNA from all the other compounds. Then, I use enzymes to further isolate only that part of the genetic information, for the individual transcription factor I am interested in. Afterwards, I can stitch it to another piece of DNA. This piece will form a protein that acts like a flashlight in a living cell. This way I created the blueprint for so-called fusion protein, that will be formed between the transcription factor and the “flash-light” protein. After finishing it, I can put this modified DNA back into the plant. Which will not be able to tell, that two individual pieces of DNA were stitched together. So, it will build a single protein based on the genetic code. By this, the cells in which the transcription factor is present (and thus important) will shine under a microscope, the others will not. By that I can see which kinds of cells the transcription factors need to be present in, for the plant to be healthy.
What does a glowing transcription factor look like?
A lot of research has been done, prior to mine, in order to have all these tools available. And scientists can use them in plants, bacteria, and mammals as well (though small differences may apply). This allows researchers all over the world to modify different kinds of organisms and find out about fundamental processes in life.
Here you can see an example of microscopy pictures, namely of a plant’s root tip. The different kinds of cells are made visible by a red dye. The yellow dots are the glowing proteins. They are naturally present in the nucleus, and the round shape comes from the shape of the nucleus. Again, thanks to previous research, I know which cells of the root tip have which function. Some cells make sure the roots grow deeper, some build a protective layer to the outside, some transport water and nutrients to the parts above the ground. I can use this knowledge and identify the cell types in which I see the yellow signal. Here it is in the protective cells on the outside of the roots which gives me an idea that the transcription factor is involved in helping the plant to protect itself.
Now I can do follow up experiments and for instance find out which genes the transcription factor controls directly. This is very fundamental knowledge I create. Once I understand the processes, others can try and find applications for this. A basis of knowledge is always needed to create something great. Just like I need the knowledge, created by other scientists, to do my work. My research might be used to make plants that can tolerate drought. Or to invent new techniques that other scientists can use to gain even more knowledge. Which gives even more potential for important applications. Thereby everyone can benefit from this fundament of knowledge.