Engineering and Aging: The Best Is Yet to Be

Men grow old, pearls grow yellow; there is no cure for it.--Chinese proverb

2 min read

The quest for the fountain of youth is as old as humankind. By comparison, the biological study of age-related illnesses began yesterday. After all, until quite recently in our history, most people didn't actually manage to grow old, so there wasn't much point in worrying about it. Genetic malfunction, microbial and virological assault, environmental catastrophe, and our longstanding inclination to kill one another usually swept us from the stage long before we had a chance to sample any of the mixed blessings of growing older: midlife crises, arthritis, enjoying avocational passions built up over decades, seeing grandchildren grow up.

Public hygiene, relatively healthy diets (well, for some of us), and fewer wars, coupled with the discovery of antibiotics and other medical advances, have worked wonders on our average life expectancies. In the United States, for example, it has gone from about 47 years in 1900 to about 77 years in 2000. And as the size of the aging population in developed countries has increased dramatically, so, too, has our interest in understanding exactly how and why we age and what we might possibly do to live a lot longer--and better--than the actuarial tables now say we should.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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