Blog#2: The Science Behind Gene Editing (Series)

By NAWG Summer 2019 Intern Merrick Irvin

Throughout history, genetic modifications have been made on plants and animals through controlled, or selective breeding by humans. This often took a great amount of time and generations to obtain the traits desired. Today, new technologies exist which allow us to perform modifications faster and with greater precision. In our second blog of our five-part series which looks at the progression of technology and its impact on wheat, we will explore the basics behind gene editing.

First things first. What is DNA?
Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA contains the genetic instructions for all living organisms and some viruses to develop, survive and reproduce. It’s often compared to a blueprint for a cell. In cells, DNA is found in the nucleus.

“Because the cell is very small, and because organisms have many DNA molecules per cell, each DNA molecule must be tightly packaged. This packaged DNA is called a chromosome.

“A chromosome contains hundreds to thousands of genes. A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. Some genes act as instructions to make molecules called proteins.”

A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA.

What does DNA Do?
As mentioned above, “DNA contains the instructions needed for an organism to develop, survive and reproduce. To carry out these functions, DNA sequences must be converted into messages that can be used to produce proteins, which are the complex molecules that do most of the work in our bodies.”

What is Gene Editing?
Genome editing (also called gene editing) is a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome.

Innovature: The Benefits of Gene Editing and Plants
Gene editing’s highly targeted approach can bring about improvements in a single generation of plant or animal, while previous breeding methods were far less precise and could take generations to be effective.

In recent years, a tool called CRISPR has pushed the potential of gene editing forward by leaps and bounds. Scientists design CRISPR, an enzyme, to attach to a specific DNA sequence and modify it. Using CRISPR, scientists have the ability to improve the nutrition of some vegetables, improve animal welfare and help both plants and animals be more resistant to disease.

More beneficial uses are on the horizon as well, including those developed through other gene editing techniques like Zinc Fingers, TALEN, and other methods which similarly use an enzyme to edit genes.

What’s Next?
These are the basics behind gene editing. Thanks to gene editing, plants can become drought-tolerant or pest-resistant and animals can live healthier lives. As global population rapidly grows, gene editing can help farmers meet the increasing demand for food while decreasing their use of land, water, and crop protectants.

Stay tune for my next blog which looks at the benefits gene editing may have for wheat. And, if you have not already, check out my first blog post of this five-part series, “The History of Wheat and Its Future.”


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Kazilek. (2010, April 24). DNA ABCs. Retrieved June 19, 2019, from