Special Report: The Genetic Revolution

On DNA Day, we celebrate the achievements that are ushering in the era of personalized genetic medicine

1 min read
Special Report: The Genetic Revolution
Image: Yakobchuk/iStockphoto

Sixty years ago this month, researchers James Watson and Francis Crick described the double helix shape of DNA. This breakthrough allowed geneticists to study how an organism's physical characteristics are encoded in the DNA molecule, and how living creatures pass down traits to their offspring.

Ten years ago this month, researchers completed sequencing the human genome, putting the roughly 3 billion letters that make up a molecule of human DNA in order. The Human Genome Project took more than a decade and cost about US $3 billion. With this comprehensive map, researchers can more easily study how our genes determine our medical fates.

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Understanding the Coronavirus Is Like Reading a Sentence

And parsing its "words" and "grammar" could lead to better COVID-19 vaccines

10 min read
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Illustration showing the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. At the virus's core is its RNA (ribonucleic acid) genome (coils). Embedded in the viral envelope (grey) are spike proteins (red) that the virus uses to attach to and infect a host cell.
John Bavaro/Science Source

Since the beginning of 2020, we've heard an awful lot about RNA. First, an RNA coronavirus created a global pandemic and brought the world to a halt. Scientists were quick to sequence the novel coronavirus's genetic code, revealing it to be a single strand of RNA that is folded and twisted inside the virus's lipid envelope. Then, RNA vaccines set the world back in motion. The first two COVID-19 vaccines to be widely approved for emergency use, those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, contained snippets of coronavirus RNA that taught people's bodies how to mount a defense against the virus.

But there's much more we need to know about RNA. RNA is most typically single-stranded, which means it is inherently less stable than DNA, the double-stranded molecule that encodes the human genome, and it's more prone to mutations. We've seen how the coronavirus mutates and gives rise to dangerous new variants. We must therefore be ready with new vaccines and booster shots that are precisely tailored to the new threats. And we need RNA vaccines that are more stable and robust and don't require extremely low temperatures for transport and storage.

That's why it's never been more important to understand RNA's intricate structure and to master the ability to design sequences of RNA that serve our purposes. Traditionally, scientists have used techniques from computational biology to tease apart RNA's structure. But that's not the only way, or even the best way, to do it. Work at my group at Baidu Research USA and Oregon State University has shown that applying algorithms originally developed for natural language processing (NLP)—which helps computers parse human language—can vastly speed up predictions of RNA folding and the design of RNA sequences for vaccines.

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