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Genetic engineering is the manipulation of genetic material through biotechnology that involves the insertion or deletion of one or more nucleotides, genes or genetic fragments.
Involving techniques that operate on scales thousands of times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, nanotechnology is already expanding the possibilities of genetic engineering and will be key to unlocking next-generation genetic manipulation technologies.
Manipulating Plant Genetics Through Nanotechnology
Currently, genetic nanotechnology is used in agriculture for the purposes of increasing production, and agricultural application of this technology is a major point of focus. In a 2019 study, researchers at the University of California showed how carbon nanotubes and the popular CRISPR-Cas9 genetic editing system could be used to easily manipulate a plant’s genome.
Most genetic engineering of plants is performed by shooting genes into plant tissue or inserting genes through genetically-modified bacteria. Both approaches have a relatively small success rate, which is a significant restriction for researchers looking to develop more resilient crops or plants for more readily transformed into biofuels.
In the study, the researchers were able to deliver genetic material into a plant cell by attaching it to a carbon nanotube, which is small enough to pass readily through the cell wall of a plant cell. The study team said they experimented with various solutions for affixing DNA to nanotubes and discovered that providing the nanotube with a positive charge before presenting the DNA caused it to adhere like bits of paper to a static electricity-charged comb.
The team said nanotubes are very effective for inserting genetic material into a plant cell's nucleus and chloroplast, a cell organelle with its own genome that is even more difficult to target using conventional techniques.
The scientists said their process offers the capacity to swiftly and efficiently supply genes to plants across species and using an approach could encourage the creation of transgenic plant lines without inserting foreign DNA into the genome.
The researchers said nanotubes not only protect genetic material from being degraded, they also keep it from entering the plant’s genome. Consequently, the method allows gene modifications that would not induce the “genetically modified” (GMO) label in the United States and other Western countries.
Taking Genetic Nanotechnology Beyond Plants
Although genetic nanotechnology is most prevalent in plants, researchers are also looking at applying it to animal cells, often for medical purposes.
In a 2017 study, a team of American and Russian researchers described how they used nanotechnology and CRISPR-Cas9 to switch off a major cholesterol-related gene in mouse liver cells called PCSK9.
In the study, the scientists were attempting to develop a safe and efficient approach to deliver the ingredients required for CRISPR-Cas9. A standard approach involves the use of engineered viruses, a technique that is restricted by an immune system developing antibodies to viruses.
To address this, the team altered CRISPR elements to safeguard them from enzymes capable of breaking them down. They then placed this CRISPR material into nanoscale fat particles that were injected into mice. The fat particles then made their way to the liver.
In tests involving the PCSK9 gene, the novel approach was found to be very effective, getting rid of the gene in at least 80 percent of liver cells. The PCSK9 protein produced by this gene went undetected in the treated mice, which also saw a 35 percent reduction in overall cholesterol.
The study team said their work could result in new ways to fix genes that trigger high cholesterol and other liver-related ailments.
Flipping the Script: Building Nanotechnology with Genetic Materials
While nanotechnology holds significant promise for gene manipulation, researchers are also looking at advancing nanotechnology through the use of genetic materials.
DNA has a very straightforward chemistry, giving it major potential for use in nanotechnology in things like nanoscale computers and drug delivery systems.
Moreover, DNA's stringent base-pairing allows for the design of molecules that self-assemble into desired shapes or interact in desired ways. For example, it is possible to generate a one-dimensional genetic sequence that spontaneously assembles into a three-dimensional shape.
One intriguing possibility for this technology is the development of nanoscale medical devices. Genetic material is fairly stable in the body, meaning nanotechnology based on DNA could operate in a very hospitable environment.
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