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Just For The Tech Of It: Genetically modified maggots, 3D printing in space, and more

When you think of modern medicine, maggots probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. But if a team of bioengineers from North Carolina State University has its way, that might soon change. The team has developed a new technique that uses genetically modified maggots to heal wounds faster than ever before.

It sounds crazy, but up until recently it actually wasn’t unusual for people to clean wounds by applying fly larvae — otherwise known as maggots — to the affected area. These little grubs devour dead flesh and leave healthy tissue intact, and also excrete antimicrobial juices along the way — which makes them a gross but undeniably effective way to treat large open wounds. To give this technique a modern update, scientists at NC state took green bottle fly larvae and tweaked their genetic code so that instead of excreting an antimicrobial factor, the maggots produced a growth factor that accelerates the healing process.

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Earlier this week, NASA launched a rocket into orbit as part of a resupply mission for the International Space Station. This happens fairly often, so it’s not always a big deal, but on this particular launch, the rocket was carrying something special — a 3D printer that can fabricate objects in zero gravity.

Now, truth be told, this isn’t the first 3D printer we’ve ever sent to the ISS, but this new and improved version is much more capable than the one we sent up in 2014, and it’s going to completely change how we send things to space. Now that the ISS crew has this printer installed, NASA and other space agencies won’t have to spend millions of dollars to launch specific parts and tools up to the space station. Moving forward, we can just send the ISS a steady supply of printing material, and then whenever an astronaut needs a wrench or a fastener or a knob or something, NASA can just beam the design file up to the printer can fabricate it right there on board.

And finally, even if you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, by now you’ve probably heard of this revolutionary new gene-editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9. Normally, when you hear about it, it’s described as a tool for eliminating genetic diseases, or maybe splicing together bits of DNA from two different places. But this week, scientists from Temple University have taken it in a completely new route — they actually used CRISPR to edit HIV genes out of human immune cells.

This is huge news, because retroviruses, like HIV, are super difficult to treat. Unlike regular viruses, retroviruses insert copies of their genomes into host cells in order to replicate — which means that as soon as you stop taking antiretroviral HIV drugs, the virus reasserts itself and weakens your immune system even further, triggering the onset of AIDS. That’s what makes this new CRISPR treatment so revolutionary. Not only does this new technique remove the viral DNA, it actually removes it permanently, and prevents the HIV from reinfecting the host.