Recombinant DnA Technology
The term recombinant DNA refers to a combination of DNA molecules that are not found together in nature. Recombinant DNA technology makes it possible to identify the DNA sequence in a gene and produce the protein product encoded by a gene. The specific nucleotide sequence of a DNA fragment can often be identified by analyzing the amino acid sequence and mRNA codon of its protein product. Short sequences of base pairs can be synthesized, radioactively labeled, and sub-sequently used to identify their complementary sequence. In this way, identifying normal and abnormal gene structures is possible.
Tests of DNA sequences are particularly useful in identifying polymorphisms, including the previously discussed SNPs, that are associated with various diseases. Because genetic variations are so distinctive, DNA fingerprinting (analysis of DNA sequence differences) can be used to determine family relationships or help identify persons involved in criminal acts. The methods of recombinant DNA technology can also be used in the treatment of disease. For example, recombinant DNA technology is used in the manufacture of human insulin that is used to treat diabetes mellitus.
Gene Isolation and Cloning
The gene isolation and cloning methods used in recombinant DNA technology rely on the fact that the genes of all organisms, from bacteria through mammals, are based on a similar molecular organization. Gene cloning requires cutting a DNA molecule apart, modifying and reassembling its fragments, and producing copies of the modified DNA, its mRNA, and its gene product. The DNA molecule is cut apart by using a bacterial enzyme, called a restriction enzyme, that binds to DNA wherever a particular short sequence of base pairs is found and cleaves the molecule at a specific nucleotide site. In this way, a long DNA molecule can be broken down into smaller, discrete fragments, one of which presumably contains the gene of interest. Many restriction enzymes are commercially available that cut DNA at different recognition sites.
The restrictive fragments of DNA can often be replicated through insertion into a unicellular organism, such as a bacterium. To do this, a cloning vector such as a bacterial virus or a small DNA circle that is found in most bacteria, called a plasmid, is used. Viral and plasmid vectors replicate autonomously in the host bacterial cell. During gene cloning, a bacterial vector and the DNA fragment are mixed and joined by a special enzyme called a DNA ligase. The recombinant vectors formed are then introduced into a suitable culture of bacteria, and the bacteria are allowed to replicate and express the recombinant vector gene. Sometimes, mRNA taken from a tissue that expresses a high level of the gene is used to pro- duce a complementary DNA molecule that can be used in the cloning process. Because the fragments of the entire DNA molecule are used in the cloning process, additional steps are taken to identify and separate the clone that contains the gene of interest.
Recombinant DNA technology has also made it possible to produce proteins that have therapeutic properties. One of the first products to be produced was human insulin. Recombinant DNA corresponding to the A chain of human insulin was isolated and inserted into plasmids that were in turn used to transform Escherichia coli. The bacteria then synthesized the insulin chain. A similar method was used to obtain the B chains. The A and B chains were then mixed and allowed to fold and form disulfide bonds, producing active insulin molecules. Human growth hormone has also been produced in E. coli. More complex proteins are produced in mammalian cell culture using recombinant DNA techniques. These include erythropoietin, which is used to stimulate red blood cell production; factor VIII, which is used to treat hemophilia; and tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), which is frequently administered after a heart attack to dissolve thrombi.
The technique of DNA fingerprinting is based in part on those techniques used in recombinant DNA technology and on those originally used in medical genetics to detect slight variations in the genomes of different individuals. Using restriction enzymes, DNA is cleaved at specific regions (Fig. 6.12). The DNA fragments are separated according to size by electrophoresis and denatured (by heating or treating chemically) so that all the DNA is single stranded. The single-stranded DNA is then transferred to nitrocellulose paper, baked to attach the DNA to the paper, and treated with series of radioactive probes. After the radioactive probes have been allowed to bond with the denatured DNA, radiography is used to reveal the labeled DNA fragments.
When used in forensic pathology, this procedure is applied to specimens from the suspect and the forensic specimen. Banding patterns are then analyzed to see if they match. With conventional methods of analysis of blood and serum enzymes, a 1 in 100 to 1000 chance exists that the two specimens match because of chance. With DNA fingerprinting, these odds are 1 in 100,000 to 1 million.
When necessary, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can be used to amplify specific segments of DNA. It is particularly suited for amplifying regions of DNA for clinical and forensic testing procedures because only a small sample of DNA is required as the starting material. Regions of DNA can be amplified from a single hair or drop of blood or saliva.
Although quite different from inserting genetic material into a unicellular organism such as bacteria, techniques are avail- able for inserting genes into the genome of intact multicellular plants and animals. Promising delivery vehicles for these genes are the adenoviruses. These viruses are ideal vehicles because their DNA does not become integrated into the host genome. However, repeated inoculations are often needed because the body’s immune system usually targets cells expressing adenovirus proteins. Sterically stable liposomes also show promise as DNA delivery mechanisms. This type of therapy is one of the more promising methods for the treatment of genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis, certain cancers, and many infectious diseases.
Two main approaches are used in gene therapy: transferred genes can replace defective genes or they can selectively inhibit deleterious genes. Cloned DNA sequences are usually the compounds used in gene therapy. However, the introduction of the cloned gene into the multicellular organism can influence only the few cells that get the gene. An answer to this problem would be the insertion of the gene into a sperm or ovum; after fertilization, the gene would be replicated in all of the differentiating cell types. Even so, techniques for cell insertion are limited. Not only are moral and ethical issues involved, but these techniques cannot direct the inserted DNA to attach to a particular chromosome or supplant an existing gene by knocking it out of its place.
To date, gene therapy has been used successfully to treat children with severe combined immunodeficiency disease, and in a suicide gene transfer to facilitate treatment of graft-versus-host disease after donor lymphocyte infusion.