Life sciences is undoubtedly one of the most fast-paced and exciting areas of research and development, with many of the breakthroughs we hear about today considered science fiction just 20 years ago, particularly in the field of DNA and genome mapping.
Earlier this year, a team of scientists in California announced that they had engineered the first stable life form to incorporate artificial DNA, bringing the world closer to producing artificial life and also opening the door to many new possibilities in drug treatments.
Natural DNA contains four letters: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). These are the codes for amino acids, the building blocks of protein, and a human DNA double helix contains about 3 billion pairs of these letters.
What the scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla did is add two new synthetic letters (X and Y) to create a six-letter DNA alphabet, which can store more information. These synthetic letters were then embedded into the genetic code of E. coli bacteria.
To ensure the bacteria would recognise the new genetic code, the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 (as mentioned in our 2017 watch list) was used by the Scripps team to build in genetic self-protection measures so that the new organism was able to recognise any genetic sequence lacking X or Y as a threat, meaning only the cells containing X and Y survived.
By adding two further synthetic proteins to the DNA alphabet, and ensuring the semi-synthetic organism was able to replicate it, the scientists have been able to produce many more possible amino acids (172, compared to 20 naturally occurring amino acids).
It is the creation of these new proteins which is perhaps the most interesting, as these could have properties that don’t occur in natural proteins and it could make them potentially useful for drug treatments. And because they have been created in a living organism, the cost to produce them can be much lower than chemical manufacturing alternatives.
The new proteins could be incorporated into the organism itself to give it new abilities, or they may be able to do things natural proteins can’t. There are clearly many more avenues to explore off the back of this ground breaking discovery so it will be worth watching this team of scientists over the coming months and years.
Synthetically creating the building blocks of life is a huge leap forward for science, particularly when you consider that the first human genome was mapped less than 15 years ago. As science increasingly has the technology at its fingertips to make such advances, what new breakthrough will we be talking about in a further 15 years’ time? Whatever it may be, its safe to say its probably something we wouldn’t have thought possible in the here and now.
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