May 2014 may be remembered as the month in which scientists began a new chapter in Genetics. After decades of research, scientists at California’s Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) can now engineer new life with artificial DNA.
A brief review of high school Biology might help here. (Remedial Biology was certainly vital to my comprehension of the development.) All life as we know it – from bacteria to humans to giant redwood trees – contains the same 4 DNA building blocks: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). Those 4 nucleotide bases always pair up as A-T and C-G, bonded together by shared hydrogen atoms and forming the famous double-stranded helix containing the code – the genetic instructions – that create and maintain life. Several enzymes cause the DNA double-stranded helix to “unzip” into single strands, transcribe genetic information onto RNA and form new strands of DNA, which is very basically how Life keeps going on.
Since the late 1990s, a team of TSRI scientists have sought molecules that would: pair like the A-T and C-G; adhere to the DNA helix; zip and unzip like the A-T and C-G; and survive DNA’s protective cellular mechanism that might perceive the new molecules as threats or mistakes and oust them. After synthesizing hundreds of “genetic variants,” the Scripps team settled on molecules they call X and Y, which bond differently than A-T and C-G, meet all the other requirements, and were passed down in bacteria 23 times while remaining healthy. This development allows scientists to alter the DNA “alphabet” within a living entity that transmits genetic information. Some of their findings are: “life can exist with information that’s not coded the ways nature does [it]”; other forms of life may exist with different coding and/or with no DNA at all; better antibiotics and disease treatments can be developed by creating new proteins, which are important to drug therapies and can be more readily evolved into better drugs.
The legal ramifications, safety issues and overall prudence of dabbling in DNA remain to be seen. Meanwhile, researchers maintain that the process is inherently safe because it requires introduction of both a “base transporter” protein and the X and Y bases. Without the conscious introduction of those elements, the cell reverts to the traditional DNA we know and love.
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