When I was in my twenties, I built a house. Despite having no experience in construction, I drew the blueprints and built the entire structure from the ground up.
To briefly explain, I had won a government lottery for properties at a new lakeside development. I only had to pay $350 for the land, but I was required to build a house on it within five years. I was still a graduate student, so I could not afford to hire professionals. I went to the university library, studied construction books, designed the architectural plans and miraculously, got them approved.
Then, over the course of a few summers, two relatives helped me bring this dream to reality. I was the reader and translator of the blueprints, cutting each component to precise measurements. Then I gave detailed instructions to my “crew,” telling them exactly where each piece needed to go. Eventually, we ended up with a cozy lake cottage that my family still uses.
Much like house blueprints, DNA provides the information for building the proteins within every living thing on Earth. Proteins are like the building blocks of our bodies. Everything we do is controlled by the proteins within our cells, and each gene in our DNA contains the code for our unique protein structure.
DNA can’t do it all alone; it relies on molecules called messenger RNA (mRNA) to deliver the instructions for building each protein into the parts of the cells that make them. In my house-building analogy, I was acting as the mRNA, reading the blueprints and delivering instructions for building each piece of the house (or protein) to my crew, who then carried out the orders.
Now consider this: What if there was a defect in the blueprint? If we followed those instructions anyway, the defect would be built into the house, which could later lead to structural problems. But what if I could pinpoint the defect in the blueprint, use an eraser and pencil to fix the mistake and then deliver the new instructions so my crew could build the house as it was intended?
On the other hand, if I wanted to add a feature to improve the design mid-construction, such as moving a wall, I could do the same thing: update the blueprints and deliver the revised instructions to the crew. It’s important to remember, relative to the size and complexity of the blueprint, these changes are small and precise. The house would still stand as it would have before, but with one or two targeted improvements.
That is what gene-editing tools are now enabling scientists to do. And the possibility of making improvements never before dreamed about—such as fixing rare diseases caused by a defect in the genetic blueprint—is certainly worth getting excited about.
In agriculture, CRISPR, for example, allows researchers to make precise improvements within a plant’s DNA to enable a beneficial characteristic, such as drought tolerance or improved nutrition, or deactivate an unfavorable characteristic, such as disease vulnerability.
This technology has the potential to help plant scientists integrate the most desirable traits into improved seed products for farmers with more efficiency and precision than ever. And by helping plants become more resilient, particularly in regions that struggle with hunger and malnutrition, we will be able to help improve people’s lives as well.
One of the reasons I became a scientist was to help make the world a better place. The safe and responsible use of gene-editing tools can do just that. However, it will take widespread public acceptance for the technology to be impactful around the world, which requires better communication to help people understand gene editing safely works with nature.
If you ever find yourself struggling to explain gene editing, perhaps “a better blueprint builds a better house” is a good place to start.