Even though at some level, we’ve been making mutants for hundreds, even thousands of years through selective breeding and agriculture, these aren’t the kind of mutants we think of. We usually expect something bizarre and alarming that happens almost immediately. Like the Incredible Hulk turning green, or turtles becoming sentient, bipedal, and proficient in martial arts. We get a little closer to that sort of thing with environment sensitive genes.
Biologists usually first learn about these genes in bacteria, with the lac-operon system. The lac-operon system is an arrangement of proteins and DNA that essentially lets bacteria adapt to their environment. Bacteria like to eat sugar, and they survive the best on glucose, the simplest of the sugars. If glucose isn’t available, they can eat other sugars, like galactose or lactose, but that requires more machinery and the bacteria don’t want to rev up those machines until they know they have to. How the lac-operon transcription system works involves the use of two proteins, one that blocks the expression of the lactose-eating gene lac-x and one that amps up the expression. When lactose is present, the blocker protein can’t work, and the amp-up protein only binds if there isn’t any glucose. So with this system, a bacterium can shift to eating different sugars like a car shift gears. This is something of a simplification of the process, but the upshot is that while the bacterium’s DNA remains the same, it’s expression is altered significantly by the environment.
Similar situations occur in more complex animals. Researchers often make use of temperature sensitive genes in fruitflies to create flies that are genetically identical to a control group, but have a protein that works differently due to being exposed to higher temperatures while forming inside the egg. In nature, this happens with many cold blooded animals whose sex is determined by the temperature where their eggs are kept.
These environmental affects control the expression of genes, and not necessarily the genes themselves, still, this isn’t as trivial as it may seem. The well-known statistic that our genes are 96% similar to chimpanzees’ is only true when we don’t count the so-called junk DNA that doesn’t seem to directly code for anything. But while this DNA doesn’t seem to make anything, recent evidence has shown that it may have an effect on how things are made or when they’re made. In other words the obvious difference between us and other animals may have more to do with how our genes are expressed rather than what genes we have in the first place.
”]Scientists can also insert known genes into the genomes of animals to create transgenic creatures. For example the gene that produces the fluorescent protein GFP in jelly fish can be inserted into the DNA of bacteria using electroporation, a technique where a electric field is used to create pores in the cell membrane of bacteria, which allows foreign DNA to enter. This can also be done through abruptly increasing the temperature, which forces the bacteria to open pores in their membranes to adapt to the situation.
Bacteria will incorporate DNA into their genome, and as long as the new DNA doesn’t interfere with their ability to survive and reproduce, the bacteria will quickly grow in number, providing a way of naturally increasing the amount of foreign DNA available. Scientists can then use enzymes to cut out the gene that they want from the bacteria and insert it into the genome of a more complicated organism through several methods
Lab workers can insert DNA directly into the nucleus of a stem cell, for example, or simply allow the cell to take in the DNA on its own. Alternatively, scientist might use a virus that has had all its DNA replaced with the foreign DNA so that it can be injected into the cell without direct human supervision.
One of the most dramatic examples of transgenic research involves the use of a protein called channel rhodopsin. This protein is related to the protein that detects light in the cells of our eyes. When the gene that produces the protein is introduced into the neurons of a mouse, and a light of a certain color is show on the neuron through LEDs or fiberoptic cable implanted in the mouse’s skull, it can cause the neurons to fire, directly affecting the behavior of the mouse. Not only that, but the channel rhodopsin can be altered to respond differently to different types of light so that blue light might cause a neuron to fire, while orange light might cause it to stop firing. This system has opened up an entirely new field of biology called optogenetics and researchers are currently finding ways to use the techniques to help sufferers of all sorts of brain diseases from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s.
So real mutants might not fly or shoot laser beams out of their eyes, but in many ways they’re even cooler than that.