Would you learn a language by taking a written text and changing letters here and there, or moving a few words around, and asking whether the meaning has changed? That may not be the most efficient way to learn French, but a Weizmann Institute scientist is betting that it will be a very useful way to improve our grasp of what is written in our DNA. Prof. Eran Segal, a computer scientist cum biologist, and his team developed a quick method for rewriting DNA that enables thousands of changes to be created at once, each in its own little, living cell, and measuring the effects of each such alteration in the DNA.

While it may sound like extreme genetic engineering, the idea, at this point, is mainly to create a new experimental research tool – one that will enable scientists to tinker with DNA on a fairly basic level. For instance, if you suspect that a bit of the genome that varies highly between people is tied to disease, you can use the method to produce all the possible variations and try them out. On the other hand, if you have a feeling that a particular sequence of DNA is a “word” that is involved in the activity of a certain gene, you can see if changing the genomic “syntax” – moving that word up and down the sequence – affects the final script. That, in part, is what Segal and his team did in their first use of the method: They looked at different parameters – syntax, wording, spelling, etc., – to see what nuances in the DNA language patterns determine how much “action” a particular gene will get.

Of course, biomedical applications do spring to mind, including finding better ways to fulfill the promises of gene therapy. (The papers on this research appeared in both Nature Genetics and Nature Biotechnology.) Having said that, we make no promises here, but we do suggest you watch this space.


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    June 1, 2012

    Genetic engineering is the future

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