All living things are all made up of cells. In order to develop new biotechnologies it is important to understand more about cells and the genetic information they contain.

Cells are the building blocks

Cells are the basic building blocks of life. Bacteria consist of a single cell, while plants and animals are made of multiple types of cell. You, for example are made of trillions of cells of many types: skin cells, nerve cells, gut cells and bone cells. The study of cell biology – what cells are made of and how they work – can be applied to all living organisms.

Genes are the instructions

Contained within every cell is DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Specific regions of this DNA, known as genes, carry the instructions for making cells.

Passing on your genes

Genes are inherited – they are passed from parents to their offspring. We each inherit two copies of each gene, called alleles, one from each of our parents. The alleles we inherit determine the particular characteristic or traits that you have. This explains why some of us have the same traits as our parents, like dark hair or blue eyes. Genes can change or evolve over time as they pass from one generation to the next.

The structure of DNA was identified in 1953, since then there have been significant advances in techniques to isolate, copy and engineer DNA. Scientists can now read the instructions coded for in the DNA and have developed techniques such as gene cloning and genetic engineering, which form the basis of many modern biotechnologies.

Cells, genes and evolution

Nobel prize winner Sir Paul Nurse has spent his career looking at genes that are involved in cell division. In 2006, Sir Paul toured New Zealand to talk about on The Five Great Ideas of Biology. Explore these ideas in a series of video clips on the Hub.

Find out more in the article, Big biology ideas.

Genetics and biotechnology

For thousands of years, selective breeding has been used to enhance or remove particular traits from animals and plants. For example, a farmer may choose to breed cattle to improve meat quality or a horticulturist may breed tomatoes to increase fruit size.

We now know that this type of breeding actually selects for the genes that are associated with these traits. Using genetic engineering biotechnologists can alter traits directly by manipulating the appropriate genes.

Disease genetics

Inherited diseases are caused by specific alleles, which are passed from parents to their offspring. For example, the gene that encodes a protein called dystrophin has two forms: one produces functional dystrophin and the other does not. If only the non-functional form is present Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) develops. DMD is a lethal disorder of the nerves that control muscle movement.

Published 16 November 2007