By Mark Nolte
The spiraled structure of DNA, discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick 50 years ago, has enabled BYU scientists to add to the world”s biological knowledge.
“(Watson and Crick) were brilliant at taking other people”s data and putting it all together,” said Terry Elton, a BYU professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “They were model builders and they put the model together using everybody else”s data.”
Watson and Crick”s model showed the world that DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, was shaped like a twisted ladder. Scientists call the shape a double helix.
DNA”s unique form gave scientists the knowledge they needed to begin to understand how living organisms pass on their traits to the next generation and how cells operate.
“Like Einstein”s ideas on relativity, it prompted other fields of science,” said micro and molecular biology professor William Bradshaw. “What followed Watson and Crick was a lot of effort to see how the molecule was regulated.”
The initial discovery of DNA”s structure lead to the concept of the gene, Elton said.
Genes are like blueprints for the proteins that are made within our cells. Cellular workers, known as ribosomes, look at the blueprint to construct proteins that can go about the cell accomplishing the task for which they were made.
Elton”s research focuses on why certain genes turn on and off. If one gene turns off, a certain protein will not be made. This may or may not be beneficial to the cell.
“I am interested in the genes that regulate blood pressure,” Elton said. “There is correlation in mutations, or changes in the genes, which lead to changes in the blueprint, which leads to changes in the instructions sent out to the workers, which leads to changes in the protein.”
Knowing the “stop and go” lifestyle of these genes and the changes they cause to proteins will aid in restricting high blood pressure.
Although Elton”s research focuses on a narrow realm of the DNA world, he said the structure of DNA plays a role in every field of biology.
Associate Professor Eric Jellen of the Department of Plant and Animal Sciences, works with colleagues in Bolivia to improve the DNA in a plant that is part of the daily diet for Bolivians and Peruvians.
Quinoa crops often fall victim to Quinoa-eating worms or fungal contamination from mildew.
Jellen and his colleagues, which include BYU students, are studying the wild Quinoa plants” DNA in order to isolate genes that are naturally resistant to worms or mildew.
After discovering which genes are naturally resistant to the worms and mildew, Jellen can breed these plants with domesticated Quinoa to ensure their survival.
“Our objective is to bring Quinoa into the 21st century,” Jellen said.
Understanding Quinoa”s genetic make-up will benefit the Bolivians and Peruvians that rely on the plant to survive, he said.
“Using our genetic markers we can transfer the genes of interest,” Jellen said. “Using DNA can greatly speed up the breeding process.”
Mikel Stevens of the Department of Plant and Animal Sciences also works with plant DNA. He said the current research being done in agriculture could be beneficial to poorer countries that are not as developed as the United States.
This summer, Stevens will be going to Melbourne, Australia to hear Watson speak about his discovery at the Genetics Congress, and also to meet members of the Center for the Application of Microbiology to International Agriculture, an organization that tries to use biotechnology in developing countries.
“We put millions of dollars into the research,” Stevens said. “If we are careful enough we could have a much safer food supply.”
Other organisms besides plants can also be altered genetically – including humans.
Through a process called gene therapy, scientists can cut pieces of DNA from one cell and place them in another.
The new genetic pieces act like a virus to redirect the cell”s function, said Laura Bridgewater, an assistant professor in the Department of Micro and Molecular Biology.
The redirected cell is then used to counteract certain diseases plaguing patients.
This technology could even go so far as to completely wipe out diseases that plague the human race. By genetically altering sperm and egg cells to resist diseases, scientists could end the destructive causes of inheritable disease, Bridgewater said.
Although the discovery of DNA”s structure has revolutionized biological science, and even opened the door for new fields of research, critics say scientists may take genetic manipulation too far.
“Some people fear that by tampering with the genes we might change what it means to be human; I disagree,” Bridgewater said. “If you look at our genes, our body and our biochemistry, we are not very different from rats, monkeys and yeast. We are very much the same. I would argue that it is our spirits that make us human. Changing our DNA can make physical changes, but it can”t get at what makes us human.”