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Software Helps Gene Editing Tool CRISPR Live Up to Its Hype

New algorithms make CRISPR as easy as point-and-click

5 min read
Software Helps Gene Editing Tool CRISPR Live Up to Its Hype
Illustration: Emily Cooper

Biotechnologists are jumping at the chance to use the revolutionary gene-editing tool known as CRISPR. The molecular gadget can be programmed to accurately tweak the DNA of any organism, but scientists need software algorithms to hasten the programming process. Dozens of teams are developing such software, and each faces the task of keeping up with rapidly evolving science and an increasingly crowded field.

CRISPR—short for Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeats—is a genetic phenomenon found in microbes that scientists adapted to disable a gene or add DNA at precise locations in the genetic code. CRISPR isn’t the first gene-editing tool on the block, but it is by far the simplest and cheapest, and since its adaptation four years ago, it has proliferated globally. Researchers can use it to knock out genes in animal models to study their function, give crops new agronomic traits, synthesize microbes that produce drugs, create gene therapies to treat disease, and potentially—after some serious ethical debate—to genetically correct heritable diseases in human embryos.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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