Coronavirus Testing: CRISPR Technology Set To Streamline Viral Testing

If we could run back 2020 to its beginning and get a do-over, chances are pretty good that we’d do a lot of things differently. There’s a ton of blame to go around on COVID-19, but it’s safe to say that one of the biggest failures of this whole episode has been the lack of cheap, quick, accurate testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the current pandemic. It’s not for lack of information; after all, Chinese scientists published the sequence of the viral genome very early in the pandemic, and researchers the world over did the same for all the information they gleaned from the virus as it rampaged around the planet.

But leveraging that information into usable diagnostics has been anything but a smooth process. Initially, the only method of detecting the virus was with reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests, a fussy process that requires trained technicians and a well-equipped lab, takes days to weeks to return results, and can only tell if the patient has a current infection. Antibody testing has the potential for a quick and easy, no-lab-required test, but can only be used to see if a patient has had an infection at some time in the past.

What’s needed as the COVID-19 crisis continues is a test with the specificity and sensitivity of PCR combined with the rapidity and simplicity of an antibody test. That’s where a new assay, based on the latest in molecular biology methods and dubbed “STOPCovid” comes in, and it could play a major role in diagnostics now and in the future.

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Hackaday Podcast 055: The Most Cyberpunk Synthesizer, Data In Your Cells, Bubbly In Your Printer, And The Dystopian Peepshow

Hackaday editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams discuss the many great hacks of the past week. Just in case you missed the fact that we’re living in the cyberpunk future, you can now pop off your prosthetic hand and jack directly into a synthesizer. The robot headed for Mars has a flying drone in its belly. Now they’re putting foaming agent in filament to make it light and flexible. And did you ever wonder why those pinouts were so jumbled?

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Direct download (~60 MB)

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Better Beer Through Gene Editing

As much as today’s American beer drinker seems to like hoppy IPAs and other pale ales, it’s a shame that hops are so expensive to produce and transport. Did you know that it can take 50 pints of water to grow enough hops to produce one pint of craft beer? While hops aren’t critical to beer brewing, they do add essential oils and aromas that turn otherwise flat-tasting beer into delicious suds.

Using UC Berkley’s own simple and affordable CRISPR-CaS9 gene editing system, researchers [Charles Denby] and [Rachel Li] have edited strains of brewer’s yeast to make it taste like hops. These modified strains both ferment the beer and provide the hoppy flavor notes that beer drinkers crave. The notes come from mint and basil genes, which the researchers spliced in to yeast genes along with the CaS9 protein and promoters that help make the edit successful. It was especially challenging because brewer’s yeast has four sets of chromosomes, so they had to do everything four times. Otherwise, the yeast might reject the donor genes.

So, how does it taste? A group of employees from a nearby brewery participated in a blind taste test and agreed that the genetically modified beer tasted even hoppier than the control beer. That’s something to raise a glass to. Call and cab and drive across the break for a quick video.

Have you always wanted to brew your own beer, but don’t know where to start? If you have a sous vide cooker, you’re in luck.

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Movie Encoded In DNA Is The First Step Toward Datalogging With Living Cells

While DNA is a reasonably good storage medium, it’s not particularly fast, cheap, or convenient to read and write to.

What if living cells could simplify that by recording useful data into their own DNA for later analysis? At Harvard Medical School, scientists are working towards this goal by using CRISPR to encode and retrieve a short video in bacterial cells.

CRISPR is part of the immune system of many bacteria, and works by storing sequences of viral DNA in a specific location to identify and eliminate viral infections. As a tool for genetic engineering, it’s cheaper and has fewer drawbacks than previous techniques.

Besides generating living rickrolls and DMCA violations, what is this good for? Cheap, self-replicating sensors. [Seth Shipman], part of the team of scientists at Harvard, explains in an interview below a number of possible applications. His focus is engineering cells to act as a noninvasive data acquisition tool to study neurobiology, for example by using engineered neurons to record their developmental history.

It’s possible to see how this technique can be used more broadly and outside an academic context. Presently, biosensors generally use electric or fluorescent transducers to relay a detection event. By recording data over time in the DNA of living cells, biosensors could become much cheaper and contain intrinsic datalogging. Possible applications could include long-term metabolite (e.g. glucose) monitors, chemical detectors, and quality control.

It’s worth noting that this technique is only at the proof of concept stage. Data was recorded and retrieved manually by the scientists into the bacterial genome with 90% accuracy, demonstrating that if cells can be engineered to record data themselves, accuracy and capacity are high enough for practical applications.

That being said, if anyone is working on a MEncoder or ffmpeg command line option for this, let us know in the comments.

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IndieGoGo Project Offers DNA Editing For The Home

CRISPR is the new darling of the genetics world, because it allows you to easily edit DNA. It is far more effective than previous techniques, being both precise and relatively easy to use. According to this IndieGoGo project, it is coming to your home lab soon. Genetic researchers love Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) because it allows you to very precisely edit a DNA strand. Using a protein called CAS9, CRISPR can find a very specific sequence in a DNA sequence and cut it. It occurs naturally in cells as part of the immune system: by finding and remembering parts of virus DNA, a cell can recognize and attack it when infected. For the genetics researcher, this allows them to insert new DNA sequences at specific points in the genes of any living cell.

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How Biohackers Are Fighting A Two-front War On Antibiotic Resistance

We humans like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution on the planet, but that’s just a conceit. It takes humans roughly twenty years to reproduce, whereas some bacteria can make copies of themselves every 20 minutes. Countless generations of bacteria have honed and perfected their genomes into extremely evolved biological machines.

Most bacteria are harmless, and some are quite useful, even tasty – witness the lactofermented pickles and sauerkraut I made this summer. But some bacteria are pathogenic nightmares that have swarmed over the planet and caused untold misery and billions of deaths. For most of human history it has been so – the bugs were winning. Then a bright period dawned in the early 20th century – the Era of Antibiotics. At last we were delivered from the threat of pestilence, never more to suffer from plague and disease like our unfortunate ancestors. Infections were miraculously cured with a simple injection or pill, childhood diseases were no longer reaping their tragic harvest, and soldiers on the battlefield were surviving wounds that would have festered and led to a slow, painful death.

Now it seems like this bright spot of relief from bacterial disease might be drawing to an end. Resistant strains of bacteria are in the news these days, and the rise of superbugs seems inevitable. But is it? Have we run out of tools to fight back? Not quite yet as it turns out. But there’s a lot of work to do to make sure we win this battle.

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