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What is gain of function?

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The term ‘gain of function research’ has recently cropped up in the debate about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.


What is Gain-of-function Research?

  • ‘Gain of function’ is a field of research focused on growing generations of microorganisms, under conditions that cause mutations in a virus.
  • These experiments are termed ‘gain of function’ because they involve manipulating pathogens in a way that they gain an advantage in or through a function, such as increased transmissibility.
  • Such experiments allow scientists to better predict emerging infectious diseases, and to develop vaccines and therapeutics.


How is it carried out?

Gain of function research may use genetic engineering or serial passaging.

  1. Genetic engineering involves ‘editing’ the genetic code to modify the virus in a way predetermined by the scientists.
  2. Serial passaging involves allowing the pathogen to grow under different circumstances and then observing the changes.


Issues related to the research:

  1. Gain-of-function research involves manipulations that make certain pathogenic microbes more deadly or more transmissible.
  2. There is also ‘loss-of-function’ research, which involves inactivating mutations, resulting in a significant loss of original function, or no function to the pathogen.
  3. Gain-of-function research reportedly carries inherent biosafety and biosecurity risks and is thus referred to as ‘dual-use research of concern’ (DURC).

Serial passaging involves allowing the pathogen to grow under different circumstances and then observing the changes.


Relevance to Covid-19 pandemic:

  • The discussion around gain of function research came back to focus recently, after a report argued that the possibility of the virus accidentally leaking out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology could not be entirely dismissed.
  • While scientists had earlier ruled out the possibility of the virus being ‘genetically engineered’, a recent report said serial passaging may have led to the evolution of the virus during an ongoing gain of function research project in the Chinese city.


How is it regulated in India?

All activities related to genetically engineered organisms or cells and hazardous microorganisms and products are regulated as per the “Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms/Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells Rules, 1989”.

  • In 2020, the Department of Biotechnology issued guidelines for the establishment of containment facilities, called ‘Biosafety labs’.
  • The notification provides operational guidance on the containment of biohazards and levels of biosafety that all institutions involved in research, development and handling of these microorganisms must comply with.


Insta Curious:

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Sources: the Hindu.