Synthesising new life

New DNA type
Professor Floyd Romesberg (right) and Graduate Student Yorke Zhang led the new study at The Scripps Research Institute, along with Brian Lamb (not pictured).(Photo by Madeline McCurry-Schmidt.)

At the turn of 2017 a team of scientists led by a professor Romesburg published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US. The paper detailed their achievement of creating a semi synthetic life form. For years, scientists have had the ability to manipulate genes and we see the benefit with improved medicines and disease resistant crops. We even had Dolly the sheep and glow in the dark rabbits. Genetic engineering has become almost commonplace.

What Romesburg and his team have done however, is not just tinker with the genes, but they have actually gone much deeper and manipulated the structure of the DNA that makes up the genes. DNA is the blueprint of life. For want of a better analogy, DNA is made up of very long strings of 4 different chemical bases that can be represented by the letters G, C, T and A. All life on earth is based on DNA, and every living cell in every complex organism has at its heart chromosomes, made up many thousands of genes, each of which is made up of a string of DNA consisting of G, C, T and A. These genes carry a complete set of blueprints to build a life form and contain instructions for everything from eye colour to propensity to acquire certain diseases.

Romesburg and his team have created synthetic DNA. They have done this by manipulating to DNA so that it no longer is made up of four chemical bases G, C, T and A, but now has two additional chemical bases, X and Y. Their achievement has not just being in creating this synthetic DNA, but in actually getting it to stick and reproduce from generation to generation. Something not achieved before. They introduced the new chemical bases into a bacteria and have successfully seen the new synthetic DNA with the additional X and Y bases thrive and be passed on accurately through over 60 reproductions.

At the moment this new DNA doesn’t have any biological function. It is just proof of concept. Whether scientists can harness the biological and chemical manufacturing machinery of the cells and tie it to the new DNA remains to be seen. If they can, then perhaps we have just witnessed the dawn of a new age of biotechnology with untold possibilities.

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