I INTRODUCTION Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA), genetic material of all cellular organisms and most viruses. DNA carries the information needed to direct protein synthesis and replication. Protein synthesis is the production of the proteins needed by the cell or virus for its activities and development. Replication is the process by which DNA copies itself for each descendant cell or virus, passing on the information needed for protein synthesis. In most cellular organisms, DNA is organized on chromosomes located in the nucleus of the cell.
In 1953 American biochemist James D. Watson and British biophysicist Francis Crick published the first description of the structure of DNA. Their model proved to be so important for the understanding of protein synthesis, DNA replication, and mutation that they were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for their work.
A gene is a sequence of DNA nucleotides that specify the order of amino acids in a protein via an intermediary mRNA molecule. Substituting one DNA nucleotide with another containing a different base causes all descendant cells or viruses to have the altered nucleotide base sequence. As a result of the substitution, the sequence of amino acids in the resulting protein may also be changed. Such a change in a DNA molecule is called a mutation. Most mutations are the result of errors in the replication process. Exposure of a cell or virus to radiation or to certain chemicals increases the likelihood of mutations.
Another tool for working with DNA is a procedure called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This procedure uses the enzyme DNA polymerase to make copies of DNA strands in a process that mimics the way in which DNA replicates naturally within cells. Scientists use PCR to obtain vast numbers of copies of a given segment of DNA.
DNA fingerprinting, also called DNA typing, makes it possible to compare samples of DNA from various sources in a manner that is analogous to the comparison of fingerprints. In this procedure, scientists use restriction enzymes to cleave a sample of DNA into an assortment of fragments. Solutions containing these fragments are placed at the surface of a gel to which an electric current is applied. The electric current causes the DNA fragments to move through the gel. Because smaller fragments move more quickly than larger ones, this process, called electrophoresis, separates the fragments according to their size. The fragments are then marked with probes and exposed on X-ray film, where they form the DNA fingerprint—a pattern of characteristic black bars that is unique for each type of DNA.
A procedure called DNA sequencing makes it possible to determine the precise order, or sequence, of nucleotide bases within a fragment of DNA. Most versions of DNA sequencing use a technique called primer extension, developed by British molecular biologist Frederick Sanger. In primer extension, specific pieces of DNA are replicated and modified, so that each DNA segment ends in a fluorescent form of one of the four nucleotide bases. Modern DNA sequencers, pioneered by American molecular biologist Leroy Hood, incorporate both lasers and computers. The Human Genome Project, an international research collaboration, has been established to determine the sequence of all of the three billion nucleotide base pairs that make up the human genetic material.
An instrument called an atomic force microscope enables scientists to manipulate the three-dimensional structure of DNA molecules. This microscope involves laser beams that act like tweezers—attaching to the ends of a DNA molecule and pulling on them. By manipulating these laser beams, scientists can stretch, or uncoil, fragments of DNA. This work is helping reveal how DNA changes its three-dimensional shape as it interacts with enzymes.
VI APPLICATIONS Research into DNA has had a significant impact on medicine. Through recombinant DNA technology, scientists can modify microorganisms so that they become so-called factories that produce large quantities of medically useful drugs. This technology is used to produce insulin, which is a drug used by diabetics, and interferon, which is used by some cancer patients. Studies of human DNA are revealing genes that are associated with specific diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and breast cancer. This information is helping physicians to diagnose various diseases, and it may lead to new treatments. For example, physicians are using a technology called chimeriplasty, which involves a synthetic molecule containing both DNA and RNA strands, in an effort to develop a treatment for a form of hemophilia.
Forensic science uses techniques developed in DNA research to identify individuals who have committed crimes. DNA from semen, skin, or blood taken from the crime scene can be compared with the DNA of a suspect, and the results can be used in court as evidence.
DNA has helped taxonomists determine evolutionary relationships among animals, plants, and other life forms. It is useful for this purpose, because closely related species have more similar DNA than do species that are distantly related. One surprising finding to emerge from DNA studies is that vultures of the Americas are more closely related to storks than to the vultures of Europe, Asia, or Africa.
Techniques of DNA manipulation are used in farming, in the form of genetic engineering and biotechnology. Strains of crop plants to which genes have been transferred may produce higher yields and may be more resistant to insects. Cattle have been similarly treated to increase milk and beef production, as have hogs, to yield more meat and less fat.
VII SOCIAL ISSUES Despite the many benefits offered by DNA technology, some critics argue that its development should be monitored closely. One fear raised by such critics is that DNA fingerprinting could provide a means for employers to discriminate against members of various ethnic groups. Critics also fear that studies of people’s DNA could permit insurance companies to deny health insurance to those people at risk for developing certain diseases. The potential use of DNA technology to alter the genes of embryos is a particularly controversial issue.
The use of DNA technology in agriculture has also sparked controversy. Some people question the safety, desirability, and ecological impact of genetically altered crop plants. In addition, animal rights groups have protested against the genetic engineering of farm animals.
Despite these and other areas of disagreement, many people agree that DNA technology offers a mixture of benefits and potential hazards. Many experts also agree that an informed public can help assure that DNA technology is used wisely.
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