Students, teachers, parents — welcome! Thank you for your interest in following up on the Expanding Your Horizon’s workshop! Here’s a summary of what we talked about today, along with many links to videos and sites where you can learn more about gene editing.
For the 2017 Expanding Your Horizons event in Edmonds, WA, the University of Washington’s Women in Genome Sciences group created a workshop around the topic of gene (genome) editing (find the lesson plan here, and the presentation here). Our goals for this workshop were to communicate the key terms and concepts of gene editing, and apply a scientific thought process to some familiar and not-so-familiar problems. Read more about our day below.
We began the day with something familiar: cookies! Chocolate chip cookies, to be exact. Usually, we bake cookies following a recipe; for example, 2 1/4 cups of flour, 3/4 cup of sugar, a cup of butter, an egg, and two cups of chocolate chips. If we wanted extra chocolate chips, we would add a cup of chocolate chips to the recipe. But what if we wanted M&M’s instead of chocolate chips? We would edit that line of the recipe, and replace chocolate chips with M&M’s.
WHAT IS GENE EDITING? You can think of a genome like a recipe. A genome contains all
the instructions for making a living creature. Every living thing has a genome, from strawberries and trees to puppies and chimpanzees. In our department at the University of Washington, we study everything about genomes. We compare genomes, we decode genomes, and we engineer genomes — with gene editing!
- Comparing Genomes: Like recipes, some genomes are more similar than others. A peanut butter cookie recipe is more similar to a chocolate chip cookie recipe than a pizza recipe; a dog genome is more similar to a wolf genome than a cat genome. Some scientists in our department compare genomes to find what parts are similar and what parts are different. If you’re interested in this type of science, look up “phylogenetics” or “evolutionary biology”. Here’s a video to start!
- Decoding Genomes: It turns out that even though we can read DNA to find out what genes are in a genome, we don’t know a lot about what those genes do. Some scientists in our department are discovering what that DNA does if it doesn’t make a gene; other scientists are exploring what the genes do and how the genes act together. In our recipe analogy, this is like how baking soda interacts (or not) with other ingredients! Some areas of science that try to decode the genome are “epigenetics” and “proteomics”. Here’s a video showing how genes interact!
- Engineering Genomes: When we edit a recipe, we can delete ingredients, add extra ingredients, or even swap out ingredients. Gene editing is how scientists delete genes, add extra genes, or swap out genes. Scientists today are using gene editing to cure diseases, fight world hunger, and save the environment. The type of gene editing we learned about is called “targeted gene editing”, and the popular technology right now is called “CRISPR gene editing”. Here’s a video about CRISPR!
TO THE RESCUE! We played a strategy game with four big problems to tackle: vitamin A deficiency, coral reef bleaching, drought, and malaria. Together, we invented some gene editing strategies to tackle these serious issues. In fact, scientists are working on these solutions right now!
- Vitamin A is an important nutrient for eye health. Usually people can get enough vitamin A to be healthy, because it’s in things like carrots, sweet potatoes, and mangoes. Without enough vitamin A, though, people can go blind. Usually these people are farmers living in places like Africa and India. Scientists found the vitamin A gene and added it to the rice genome so that the farmers could grow it and get enough vitamin A.
- Coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia are dying, taking with them a unique ocean ecosystem where many fish live. Corals are actually tiny animals, and they’re sensitive to the higher ocean temperatures these days. Scientists are racing to find genes that could help these coral animals survive higher temperatures without dying.
- Drought is affecting the crops that provide food for humans and animals. Without water, important plants like corn can’t grow. Scientists are looking through the genomes of plants like cacti for new genes that might help plants like corn survive without a lot of water.
- Malaria is a blood disease caused by a parasite that lives in mosquitoes. When a parasite-infected mosquito bites a person, the parasite can get into the person’s blood and make them extremely sick. Scientists are trying all these ideas to protect people from malaria.
DARWIN’S FINCHES. The last thing we did was save an imaginary bird species from a catastrophic volcano eruption on their home island. A bird scientist (ornithologist) consulted us as genome scientists to help adapt the bird to their new island. To do this, we “edited” some of the bird’s genes: its beak/feet, its feathers, and its size. We came up with some great ideas! For a jungle bird, we made it smaller so it could hide in the leaves, gave it a beak/feet for eating fruit, and made it green with a yellow belly so it could camouflage from predators. For a city bird, we made it bigger so it wouldn’t blow away in the wind, gave it a beak/feet for eating insects like flies, and made it orange with a black belly so that it would stand out to potential mates.
This activity was inspired by the amazing finches of the Galapagos Islands. Here’s a video about how the birds adapted to their new island homes!