Using DNA Technology to Determine Gene Function

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  • 0:00 Determining Gene Functions
  • 1:14 In Vitro Mutagenesis
  • 2:32 RNA Interference
  • 4:32 Genome-Wide…
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many genes in the human body. and we don't actually know what all of them do. So. how do we find out? Modern technology and research techniques have opened up new strategies for determining gene function, three of which we'll check out in depth.

Determining Gene Function

There are thousands of genes in the human body. Thousands and thousands and thousands. That's a lot, and they all do...something. This one impacts hair color, this one is responsible for cardiovascular health, this one...actually I don't know what this one does. And, I'm not alone here. In fact, when scientists first mapped the human genome, the complete set of genetic information on the chromosomes within every human, they realized that they didn't know what almost half of the genes in the human body actually did.

Since then, researchers have been actively searching for new ways to test gene function. Why does this actually matter? Well, knowing how a gene impacts an organism majorly affects scientific and medical research. Whether you're trying to breed flowers with brighter colors and you need to find the genes for pigmentation, or you're trying to identify the gene responsible for Parkinson's disease to help find a cure, this search can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Luckily, modern technology has given us a few tools to make the process a little more manageable.

In Vitro Mutagenesis

Let's take a look at some of the ways that researchers are using technology to determine the function of genes. These scientists over here are working on recombinant DNA technology, in which DNA molecules of different species are inserted into a host. The way that each molecule reacts indicates something about its function.

One of the major uses of this process is called in vitro mutagenesis, in which a mutation is artificially produced in a DNA molecule. Here's how it works. First, we clone a strand of DNA so we know exactly what's in it and how it normally behaves. Then it is treated in vitro, in a test tube, to mutate. Now, mutations happen naturally all the time, but this lets researchers control the process to produce specific mutations. Next, the mutated DNA is inserted into a host.

See what happened here? After we mutated this DNA and put it into this bacterium, the bacterium changed color. Now, we know that this gene normally has something to do with pigmentation. By changing the gene and observing the subsequent changes in an organism, we figured out its original purpose.

RNA Interference

Many of the tests we use to determine gene function involve mimicking natural processes within healthy cells, just as how in vitro mutagenesis regulates the naturally-occurring process of mutations. Another similar strategy that we've got over here is called RNA interference. In this process, artificial RNA molecules are used to silence, or turn off, certain genes on the DNA. What does that mean?

Well, in a healthy cell molecules of RNA, or ribonucleic acid, regulate, activate, and silence the genes on a strand of DNA. A blood cell doesn't need the same genes as a skin cell, for example, so RNA selects and turns on only the relevant genes. Now, things like viruses can use this process to infect a cell with their own DNA, so the cell has a defense mechanism in which certain types of RNA can block the expression of genes that would normally be activated.

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