By Kristen Panthagani, PhD
COVID vaccines are on the horizon! And sadly, vaccine misinformation is on the rise as well. One claim that has been circulating for a while now is the idea that mRNA vaccines will somehow mess with people’s DNA and turn them into genetically modified organisms. Is this true?
Lol no. Not at all. Here’s why.
What is mRNA?
Before we get to the vaccine, let’s start with some basics of what mRNA is. You may remember that RNA has something to do with DNA, and they share two of the same letters so they’re probably related. Turns out you’re right… they are related, but they are not the same thing.
DNA is the stuff that makes up your genome. Think of DNA as the official master copy of your genetic code. Every cell (with a few exceptions) has its own master copy which contains the instructions to make all the machinery in the cell. Because it’s the master copy, DNA is guarded very, very carefully. And you probably remember that DNA is a code… there are only four letters in that code (A, C, G, and T), and with those four letters, all the instructions for the human body are spelled out.
But DNA doesn’t actually do the stuff in the cell, it only has the instructions for it. So how does the cell turn those instructions into actions? The first step is to make a photocopy of the specific instructions needed for whatever task is at hand. Those photocopies are made out of RNA. There are different types of RNA, but for the sake of this blog, all you need to know about is messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA is essentially a photocopy of small segments of your genome.
So what does mRNA do (and why is it in a vaccine?). mRNA meets up with some machinery in the cell (ribosomes, to be specific), and translates the four letter mRNA code into proteins. Proteins are built of amino acids, and every three letter sequence in the mRNA code corresponds to a specific amino acid (for example, the sequence G-A-C encodes for the amino acid called aspartate.) As ribosomes read through the mRNA code, a protein is formed by making a chain of amino acids in exactly the right order based on the mRNA sequence. Those amino acid chains then fold up in just the right way to make a functional protein, which then go do their job inside the cell.
Why are we putting mRNA in vaccines?
Vaccines work by introducing a small part of a virus or bacteria (but not the whole thing) into the body so that our immune systems can learn to recognize it. In the past, scientists have done this by taking one of the viral proteins and putting that protein in the vaccine. Our immune systems learn to recognize the viral protein, and then we are ready to attack it when the real virus comes around.
The idea behind mRNA vaccines is we are going one step upstream in this process. Instead of putting the viral protein in the vaccine, we put the instructions for the viral protein in the vaccine: the mRNA. Our cells automatically know what to do with mRNA and will translate it into the correct protein. In the case of the COVID vaccine, the mRNA encodes for the coronavirus spike protein. Then, just like with other types of vaccines, our immune systems will learn what that spike protein looks like and will form antibodies against it. Then, if the real virus comes around, we will already have the antibodies ready to destroy it.
So, will mRNA vaccines mess with my genome?
No. This process only runs in one direction. DNA encodes for mRNA which encodes for proteins; this doesn’t run in reverse. mRNA does not do anything to your DNA. And this is why your genome is 100% safe from any foreign mRNA you may encounter. Your cell knows not to edit something as important as its master copy (DNA) because a random photocopy (mRNA) came around. There are molecular fail-safes to make sure this never happens. So no, mRNA vaccines will definitely not turn you into a GMO.
Still confused? For this topic in particular, I think pictures are helpful. So I made my very first You Can Know Things video which explains what mRNA is, how it encodes for proteins, and why the COVID vaccines most definitely will not turn you into a GMO. Check it out!