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Scientists unveil tools for rewriting the code of life

MIT and Harvard researchers have developed technologies that could be used to rewrite the genetic code of a living cell, allowing them to make large-scale edits to the cell’s genome. Such technology could enable scientists to design cells that build proteins not found in nature, or engineer bacteria that are resistant to any type of viral infection.

The technology, described in the July 15 issue of Science, can overwrite specific DNA sequences throughout the genome, similar to the find-and-replace function in word-processing programs. Using this approach, the researchers can make hundreds of targeted edits to the genome of E. coli, apparently without disrupting the cells’ function.

“We did get some skepticism from biologists early on,” says Peter Carr, senior research staff at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory (and formerly of the MIT Media Lab), who is one of the paper’s lead authors. “When you’re making so many intentional changes to the genome, you might think something’s got to go wrong with that.”

The new paper is the result of a seven-year collaboration between researchers in the lab of Joseph Jacobson, associate professor in the Media Lab, and George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to Carr, lead authors of the paper are Farren Isaacs, an assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale University, and Harris Wang, a research fellow at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

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