MadSci Network: Genetics

Re: How is Chemistry used in Genetic Engineering?

Date: Tue Feb 17 14:05:09 1998
Posted By: Eric Biddinger, Grad Student, Horticulture, Penn State University
Area of science: Genetics
ID: 885528254.Ge


This question has really made me stop and think. I don't usually think about what I do as chemistry, but I guess it really is.

Let's think of it this way. You are made up of organs. Different tissues make up the organs. The tissues are composed of many cells. The cells can be broken down into organelles. The organelles are comprised of chemical compounds. Those chemicals are made up of atoms. Based on this we can say (with the risk of inflating a few chemists' egos) that chemistry is the foundation of life sciences.

Let's look at a few examples. Without chemistry, we would not know what DNA looked like. Because of chemistry, we know how four simple nucleotides interact with each other and how the chemical bonds work to form base pairs. This is critical to understanding the shape of the molecule and how it carries information.

We have learned that certain chemicals will change the properties of other chemicals. Scientists have developed a whole host of techniques, or protocols, to isolate DNA, RNA, and proteins in order to work with them. For instance, to "clean up" other chemicals from a DNA sample, we might dissolve the impurities in alcohol, which will leave the DNA behind (This is just one very simple example). These techniques were discovered by understanding and applying how chemicals react with each other. This is chemistry.

Another part of chemistry is a collection of basic laboratory techniques. We have to make the media we will use to grow the cells we are working on. Some basic chemistry is required to understand how to adjust a media pH or what is meant by a 0.1 molar solution.

Genetic engineering requires the use of all types of chemicals. Just looking at all of the chemicals in a lab can be frightening. What is the difference between nitrate and nitrite? Some of the chemicals have really long names. What do they mean? Is it safe to store these two chemicals in the same cabinet? I just took a stroll down to my lab to take a look in the chemical cabinet. I found three bottles of citric acid. All three contained a slightly different form of the same chemical. What if I am out of the one I needed? Can I substitute one for another without ruining the experiment? Do I need to add different amounts? These are very real questions faced by scientists every day. And they usually have very simple answers!!!! All it takes is applying a little chemistry and a bit of common sense!

I hope I haven't scared anyone away from studying genetic engineering or molecular biology just because chemistry is involved. This is a real world application of chemistry. The more you use it, the easier it becomes to understand how all the pieces fit together.

That was a great question. Thanks a lot!

Eric J. Biddinger
Grad Student - Department of Horticulture
Penn State University

ADMIN NOTE: Another of our scientists submitted an answer simultaneously:

Hi Christopher

Your question is a good one. One of the interesting happenings with our education system is that it appears that biology, physics, chemistry, geology......(all the science domains) are unique and different from each other. This is not quite true. These classifications are more for different ways of attacking problems. Genetic science was actually pioneered by physicists. Chemists started coming on board quickly, and with its application to living systems, biologists became involved. When I go to the genetics lab on campus, there are physicists, chemists, and biologists working in the labs. By the look of the labs there is not a good way to tell which scientist came from which domain.

DNA is a chemical and chemists love to play with how it reacts to other chemicals and chemical environments like pH and temperature. With genetic engineering, scientists are trying to determine how DNA can be added, deleted, replaced, or fixed.

Lets take a pretend disease that has one base (A) that is deleted. If that base (A) can be removed and a (G) replaced, the person will no longer have that disease. A chemist will have to determine how to get that chemical inside the cell membrane, into the nucleus, incorporated into the right spot on the DNA and remove the errant base. To do this they have to understand the chemistry of the nuclear and cellular membrane, the cytoplasm, and the DNA. It could be the changing the pH of the cell which lets the new base in. It could be another chemical (protein) that lets the DNA in. It could be temperature that causes a reaction to slow down or to go fast. It could be chemical properties of the DNA that allows it to accept the new base and reject the old. Further, it may be just one organ that the DNA needs to be fixed and they need to understand the unique chemical properties of the cells in that organ.

If you are going to study genetics in college you will want to take as many diverse science courses as possible in your undergraduate years. This will give you an advantage in different ways to understand how the cells work and how you will want to tackle your research.

Betsy Price

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