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June 18, 2019

What happens if we engineer a superbug, and the lab gets hacked?

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of a post-superbug world. (credit: John Cayea / Doubleday)

We’re running a series of companion posts this week to accompany our special edition Ars Lunch Break podcast. This is the first of three guest posts centered around Rob’s TED talk below. Tomorrow we’ll have a post continuing the discussion from geneticist George Church, and Thusday we’ll have one from microbiologist Andrew Hessel.

The H5N1 flu strain makes SARS and swine flu look almost cuddly. But though it kills higher percentages of infected patients than even Ebola, this ghastly flu variant claimed just [...]

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June 4, 2019

Why haven’t genetically engineered crops made food better?

Enlarge / Normal rice (bottom), the first version of golden rice (right), and the current strain (left). (credit: Environmental Health Perspectives/NIH)

One of the arguments that has been advanced to promote genetically engineered crops is that the techniques have the potential for improving the food we eat. Crops could be engineered so that they provide nutrients they currently don’t or so that good nutrition is in reach of poor people in developing nations.

In fact, the technology does have that potential, and a couple of efforts have been made to do exactly this. Yet, decades into the GMO era, all of the engineered [...]

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May 17, 2019

DNA Script picks up $38.5 million to make DNA production faster and simpler

DNA Script has raised $38.5 million in new financing to commercialize a process that it claims is the first big leap forward in manufacturing genetic material.

The revolution in synthetic biology that’s reshaping industries from medicine to agriculture rests on three, equally important pillars.

They include: analytics — the ability to map the genome and understand the function of different genes; synthesis — the ability to manufacture DNA to achieve certain functions; and gene editing — the CRISPR-based technologies that allow for the addition or subtraction of genetic code.

New technologies have already been introduced to transform the [...]

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May 15, 2019

Researchers make their own E. coli genome, compress its genetic code

Enlarge / Like any other E. coli, but different. (credit: CDC)

The genetic code is the basis for all life, allowing the information present in DNA to be translated into the proteins that perform most of a cell’s functions. And yet it’s… kind of a mess. Life typically uses a suite of about 20 amino acids, while the genetic code has 64 possible combinations. That mismatch means that redundancy is rampant, and a lot of species have evolved variations on what would otherwise be a universal genetic code.

So is the code itself significant, or is it something of a historic accident, locked in place by events in the [...]

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