Synthetic DNA adds new letters to genetic alphabet

Cue the alien genetics conspiracy theory narratives…

First life with ‘alien’ DNA (Nature):

Scientists have created the first organism with synthetic DNA that can replicate in a cell, an achievement that promises to add new letters to the genetic code underlying life on Earth.

In the natural world, just two chemical base pairs, known simply as A-T and C-G, constitute the building blocks of DNA in all life forms. Research published Wednesday in the journal Nature describes the creation of a cell that contains a man-made base pair, dubbed d5SICS-dNAM.

As a proof of concept, the group has created a synthetic base pair and added it to the DNA of an E. coli cell. Furthermore, the new base pair copied correctly when the cell replicated.

The paper (paywalled) is published in Nature, and provides details about the first organism to “propagate stably an expanded genetic alphabet.” According to the Nature news release, “[t]he alien E. coli contains just a single pair of foreign DNA bases out of millions,” but there is not necessarily a limit on what percentage of foreign DNA (of the organism) is achievable.

Potential applications include protein-based medication delivery, or synthesis of proteins that handle chores within the body, the Washington Post reports.

See also:

DNA Chemical Structure (CC0 by Madeleine Price Ball)

DNA Chemical Structure (CC0 by Madeleine Price Ball)

  1 comment for “Synthetic DNA adds new letters to genetic alphabet

  1. K Friesen
    May 8, 2014 at 6:35 PM

    Adding new “letters” to the nucleotide alphabet is a far, far stretch from getting cells to use these new bases to code for new amino acids. It will be interesting if they can get this to happen (and it would sure surprise me if they could do so), but just getting the cells to replicate new base pairs is a far, far cry from creating really novel proteins. Also, we still have so incredibly much to learn about just how the proteins that nature already creates, as well as how any modified proteins we could get nature to create by altering the genetic code that this idea seems more of a novelty than something that we are capable of being able to exploit at this point.

    Having word with genes and protein expression in the past, I think this is a wonderful new piece of biotechnological magic, I just object to how the press portrays this as being an important new advance. In twenty years, when we understand protein folding and how what we could already do with the amino acids that nature already uses, then this might be something useful. Right now, it is just a basic bit of very basic science and I feel the only reason that the media is shouting about this is because they don’t understand just how amazing what nature does do with the code it has is. I don’t know that we need more amino acids or DNA base pairs to be able to accomplish what we would like to do. Just look at what nature has already done with the alphabet it already has.

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