Manipulating Heritable Information

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

In this lesson, we'll be learning different strategies that scientists use to change genetic information in cells and organisms. We'll explore how scientists do this and some common applications.

What Is Heritable Information?

Have you ever considered how you get your traits? What makes you have dark skin, or curly hair? Why are your eyes brown and not green? The answer is heritable information, or your DNA. DNA holds all the instructions for making you, you. Different species have different DNA that makes them unique. Today, scientists are able to manipulate, or change, heritable information to make cells and even entire organisms with desirable traits. Today, we're going to look at some of the techniques scientists use to do this and their applications.

Genetically Modified Organisms

A genetically modified organism is a living thing in which scientists have altered its DNA. Although genetically modified organisms have gotten some bad press lately, they actually have many uses both in research and consumer products. Depending on what organism is being modified, scientists use different techniques for modification. Next, we'll look at each one in detail.


Scientists use a process called transfection to introduce the foreign DNA into the cell. After cutting the desired DNA out of the original species and making copies, the cells are combined with the DNA. Cells are either treated with chemicals, or go through electroporation, where they are stimulated with electricity. The electricity pops holes in the membrane, making it easier for the new DNA to enter. Think of it like cutting open a pastry to fill it with creme. The pastry is the cell, and although damaging, the holes need to be cut to fill it.

Some of the new DNA will be incorporated into the cell's genome, and the cell will start to follow the instructions as if it were their own, making the desired protein.

One important example of transfection is in bacteria, single celled organisms that have their DNA floating freely in the cell. Bacteria can be used as factories to produce proteins that humans need for medicine. Insulin is one such protein produced like this.

Insulin is a medication used to treat diabetes. Diabetics don't make enough insulin or don't respond to insulin signals. These patients need to inject extra insulin to keep their blood sugar levels stable and healthy. Bacteria have been genetically manipulated to make the insulin protein using transfection. Bacteria make and secrete the insulin and scientists can collect and purify it for patients. Since bacteria grow so quickly, these organisms are powerhouses of production and make lots of insulin in a short amount of time.


Scientists also want to change the DNA in animal cells, like when researching diseases such as cancer. Scientists change genes in healthy cells and observe any changes that might lead to disease, shedding light on the original causes. Although transfection is used in animal cells, it can be hard on cells, causing excessive cell death, making the process inefficient. Sometimes, scientists use a virus to insert DNA inside the cell during a process called viral transduction. Transduction is also used for manipulating bacteria, although it is a more common technique for scientists studying human disease.

Scientists use a special type of virus for animal cells called retroviruses. Retroviruses like HIV enter cells and insert their DNA into the genome, or the DNA inside the host cell. Scientists can use these like a cargo ship to put their desired DNA into the cell. The virus is loaded with the genes that should be inserted and cells are infected. Some cells then express the new DNA and can be used in experiments.

Retroviral transduction
viral transduction


Genetic modification doesn't just involve single cells. Scientists have the technology to create entire genetically modified animals, such as Dolly the sheep, the first animal ever cloned. However, creation of a transgenic animal is more complicated than modifying a single cell.

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