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Researchers have designed genetic “circuits” out of living cellular material in order to gain a better understanding of how proteins function, with the hope of impacting synthetic biology and gene therapy. The team engineered a custom microRNA-based system by stitching together pieces of genetic material taken from a variety of living organisms, including humans, viruses and jellyfish. Their plan was to place this system inside human cells and use its output to analyze the nuanced behavior of microRNA — small non-coding RNA molecules. MicroRNA that misfire can contribute to progression of various diseases, including cancer. The team hopes its research influences future designs of genetic circuits that will be used in personalized medicine and gene therapy. Gene therapy involves transplanting normally functioning genes into cells to replace missing or damaged material in order to correct genetic disorders. The research also could shed light on natural genetic redundancies and other diseases where microRNA are not at physiological levels.

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