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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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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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