DNA is the building block of life, containing the genetic code and information of all of life. As such, being a powerful information storage, in recent years scientists have thought about leveraging the power of DNA in various technologies. One such technology that I have recently written about uses DNA as storage material for computers. Recently, a team of researchers headed by Prof. Andrea Rentmeister at the University of Münster found an ingenious way of using light to turn DNA on and off which may have implications in the fields of DNA technologies, synthetic biology and epigenetics.
In order to understand the significance of this research, and, more generally innovation in the field of DNA technology, we first need to undress the complexity of DNA. This complexity was illuminated by the Human Genome Project in 2012 when scientists discovered that only about 2% of DNA is actually maintain our day to to day life. So what does 98% of the DNA do? It was found that this DNA, sometimes referred to as coding or regulatory DNA, is responsible for controlling the other 2% of the DNA. Regulatory DNA contains the millions of switches which control gene expression. To put it more simply, this large chunk of DNA is responsible for dictating what type of cell is formed, and ultimately shaping matter itself. Essentially every cell has the same DNA but what makes something a heart cell or a brain cell depends on what genes are expressed, or more colloquially which genes are turned ‘on’ or ‘off.’ Thus, understanding the regulation mechanics may give keys to creating life saving therapies as well as advances technologies that could revolutionize the way we think about the world. However because such a large portion of DNA is dedicated to this task, this is a challenging problem which has not yet fully understood.
To literally shed light on this problem, scientists at University of Münster found an ingenious way of using the 2018 Nobel Prize winning technique, known as protein engineering, to turn DNA on and off. In this case they used the technique to engineer an enzyme in such a way that it was sensitive to light, by using what are known as photo caging groups. It is widely known that most biological processes are chemical reactions which are regulated with the help of enzymes. Thus, taking advantage of protein engineering, researchers engineered one enzyme which can be activated by light, in the cascade reaction. Thus, making it possible to switch DNA functions on and off by means of light. The beautiful aspect of this research is both the discovery and the process, because as it is often evidenced through other innovation, it is precisely the adaption of one method to another field is what gives rise to breakthrough innovation. In addition to that light is great medium for modulation as it is easy to source and control, it is non toxic and is readily available. Thus, with further research, this finding may be of significance in development of DNA based technologies and aid in further understanding the gene regulation process.