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Communications of the ACM


A Brave New World of Genetic Engineering

genetic materials, illustration

Credit: Yurchanka Siarhei

Altering the genetic code of plants and animals is not a job for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, in research labs around the world, scientists are increasingly peering into the cellular structures of living things—and recombining DNA and RNA molecules to produce everything from new tomatoes to new medicines. "The tools and technologies used for viewing and manipulating genetic materials have become more widely available and much easier to use," observes George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in genomic research.

It is no small matter, even if the matter involved is at the molecular level. CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing toolkit, is advancing the field of programmable biology by leaps and bounds. It allows researchers to reconfigure genes and create new versions of things. Another technology, cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM), is helping scientists peer into genetic material at a resolution that was once unimaginable. They can view the intricate structures of proteins, nucleic acids and other biomolecules, and even study how they move and change as they perform various functions. Both of these tools, as well as more advanced computing models, have introduced a brave new world to genetic research.


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