Scientists Using Alien Molecules To Expand DNA

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Scientists have taken the first steps toward writing the blueprint of life in an alphabet unknown to nature, they reported online in the journal Nature.

Until now, biologists have used the same base molecules when synthesizing DNA. It has been recently announced that scientists have not only created two new bases, but also inserted them into a single-cell organism and found that these new bases replicate like natural DNA, except at a slower rate.

The scientists reported that they were able to make the common bacteria E. coli, to replicate approximately 24 times over a period of 15 hours.

The expanding field of synthetic biology holds promises for creating new antibiotics and other drugs. It has also raised concerns that scientists are in some way “playing God” by creating living things that could escape from labs into the outside world where they have no natural predators and no way to monitor their spread.

In current studies, the scientists claim to have taken precautions to make that impossible. They claim the new bases are not found in the natural environment, so even if organisms with synthetic DNA were to escape from the lab they could not survive, let alone infect other organisms.

In nature, DNA’s bases, labeled A, T, C, and G, form pairs. A pairs with T and C with G, forming what resembles steps in a winding staircase. Bases determine which amino acids a particular strand of DNA codes for, and therefore what proteins are produced.

So far, the synthetic bases do not code for any amino acids, the scientists reported. But in principle they could. Just as adding an additional letter or two to the English alphabet would allow more words to be created, adding X and Y to the natural DNA bases would allow new amino acids and proteins to be created. It is unknown at this early stage whether these new proteins would be useful or not.

Believing that they will be useful, scientists have co-founded a biotechnology company based in San Diego named Synthorx which will focus on using synthetic biology “to improve the discovery and development of new medicines, diagnostics and vaccines,” the company said in a statement.

Synthorx has secured the exclusive rights to the synthetic DNA advance.