When you read the term “genetically modified,” what comes to mind?

If you trust what’s in the media, maybe you relate this to unhealthy, gigantic food or the idea of humans “playing God” (and maybe there’s an inkling of truth to that). But overwhelmingly, its meaning has been clouded with negativity and buzz words, to the point that we no longer wonder what exactly it refers to. Before all the baggage and connotations, it was something much more humble.

What “genetically modified” actually means is simply moving DNA around the genome (the stuff that encodes the blueprint of all living things – roughly translating to “all the genes”). Cutting it out, splicing it in, hopping from one chromosome to another, etc – it can be thought of as performing surgery on your DNA. In the life sciences, this phrase is almost never used. Instead, we say transgenics – broken down, it’s derived from “trans-” meaning across, beyond or change, and “-genics” meaning genes.

A beautiful, close-up image of a few strands of DNA. You can see why this structure is referred to as the
A beautiful, close-up image of a few strands of DNA. You can see why this structure is referred to as the “beads-on-a-string” model. The round beads are proteins (histones) and the string is DNA. Reference: Electron microscope unit. “3D reconstruction techniques of chromatin fibers.” Web. http://emu.uct.ac.za/ [accessed15-08-08]

Transgenics has become an indispensable technique in modern biochemical research because it is the ultimate way to figure out what all our different genes do. It sounds rather crude, but one of the most compelling ways to determine the function of a gene is to knock it out and see what happens. Better still is adding the gene back and seeing if the effect, or phenotype, is recovered.

Transgenics also lets us fuse two genes together, which is useful because sometimes we want to see how things move from place to place in the cell or where they’re produced in an organism. Transgenics lets us join something we can see (for example, the green fluorescent protein taken from Aquorius victoria jellyfish) to something we can’t, thereby allowing us to track the previously invisible target.

Yes, this is also how we produced rats that glow green and honey bees with red eyes, but the real goal of all this splicing and dicing is to understand how the different parts of our cells – or cells in any organism, for that matter – work together to produce this mesmerising thing called life.