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A gene gun is a device used in biolistic transfection, a process used to introduce genetic material to cells through the use of tiny DNA-coated particles fired at high velocity into a cluster of cells. Gene guns are used in laboratory settings to conduct research, develop new products, and tag samples of materials. Several different types of gene gun are available to researchers, sold by companies which specialize in scientific supplies, and some labs have devised their own to meet specific needs to to address perceived shortcomings with commercial products.
The concept of the gene gun was introduced in the 1980s, as researchers were looking for new ways to introduce genetic material into the cells they studied. Gene guns were originally developed for use with plant cells, although they can also be used in animal cells. As with other pieces of lab equipment, gene guns are constantly being modified and refined to make them more useful.
With a gene gun, a “bullet” is made from particles which have been coated in DNA. The bullet is fired into a petri dish with a sampling of cells, and the particles introduce the DNA to the cells. While some of the cells may not survive the process, the remaining cells can be used in a variety of ways. The new genetic material also includes a marker which makes it easy to identify cells which have been successfully penetrated with the material.
Using a gene gun, a researcher can introduce new DNA to force a cell to produce proteins it wasn't making before. Gene guns have been used extensively in the genetic modification of crops to introduce genes which make crops more resistant to drought, increase the nutritional value of crops, or allow herbicides to be used safely around crops. Gene guns have also been used experimentally to deliver genetic vaccines, and to introduce DNA into animal cells for the purpose of tagging them for microscopy or for genetic engineering of such cells.
While a gene gun might sound like a handy thing to have, the technology behind it is complex, delicate, and as of 2009, not safe for use in people. In order to use a gene gun, someone needs access to the technology to prepare bullets, and the training to know how to manipulate DNA to achieve desired goals. Operation of the gene gun itself can also be tricky, especially since such guns are primarily designed for use on cells in culture, not on living tissue.