How not to perform genetic engineering

Demonstrating that good people are capable of bad things, here is the BBC attempting to explain genetic engineering to its news audience. Most of what is presented is fine really. Except for the bit about genes.

The problem here relates to the graphic used to depict the process of gene implantation. The reporter is describing the extraction of the gene for luminescence from a jellyfish and its implantation into a marmoset embryo (via germline transmission). The aim of the research is to show that such genetic transmission would lead the marmoset to develop body-hair that glows in the dark (more broadly, the research aims to successfully produce “transgenes” in primates). However, while we are shown an archetypal double-helix representation to depict the gene in question, it is not this that we see transplanted into the monkey embryo. Instead, the graphic shows just a single nucleotide being extracted from the jellyfish’s DNA.

Genes comprise lengthy stretches of DNA. To visualize a gene you should imagine the double-helix as comprising a coiled rope that is then wrapped around a protein inside the nucleus of a living cell. A nucleotide can be visualized as a single fragment of fiber making up the rope itself. Extracting a gene would involve removing a full stretch of DNA rather than just a single elemental nucleotide. In fact, taking the double-helix structure apart to extract one of its structural components would be of no use at all.

The error here is not devastating and the verbal script written by the journalist seems very accurate and clear. It is just the visuals that are garbled. However, genetic engineering is somewhat of a sensitive issue that attracts a high degree of public concern. In this context, it is slightly unfortunate that viewers of this BBC news story may have acquired an inaccurate understanding of the process, and specifically the relationship between the concepts “gene” and “DNA”.

The research described in the news report was conducted by Erika Sasaki and colleagues in Kawasaki, Japan, and published in the scientific journal Nature. You can find the full paper here.

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  1. Great post, Brian! I didn’t realise your expertise extended to genetics. A behavioural genetics course in the psych bachelor would be a fantastic addition, I always think. After all, we have article after article fired at us about stress-gene diathesis models, but only an extremely shallow notion of how genes work. I’m reading some stuff myself in an attempt to catch up, but am frequently left behind by the neuro guys that we share a class with now.

    • I have to agree with you there John, it certainly would be a great addition. I’ve a feeling i’ll have to do a lot of reading myself before taking on a neuro-based masters in your new homeland!!

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