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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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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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