Tools and technology
By Brona McVittie
“Technology has been a key determinant of the trajectory of human history,” says Barry Thompson (Cancer Research Institute, London, UK). "As soon as there’s a new technology, society has to adjust to it and its ethical implications. With genetic modification (GM) technology, people are concerned because they don’t understand how it works. Other fears arise from the religious belief that GM is like playing God. However, it is just like any technology and can be used for good or bad purposes.”
GM encompasses a range of technologies that are used to alter the characteristics of living organisms. This may involve the insertion of new genes not normally possessed by an organism into its genome, thereby creating a transgenic animal. Genes may also be knocked-out through mutation. Recently, however, it has also become possible for genes to be ‘knocked down’ rather than ‘knocked out’. This involves blocking a critical function of cells: protein manufacture.
In order for a cell to do its job, an army of proteins must be created from DNA templates stored in the genome. Yet, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is not the only coding material inside our cells. Making protein requires RNA (ribonucleic acid) templates that faithfully mirror DNA sequences. Single-strands of RNA are assembled along the length of DNA. Such so-called messenger RNA (mRNA) then leaves the cell nucleus and travels to the protein-making factories of the cell. Blocking RNA hampers protein manufacture, blocking expression of the gene in question.