Feeds

Boffinry breakthrough: First self-replicating life with 'alien' DNA

This time around, it needs to be fed to keep copying; next time? Mebbe so, mebbe not...

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Intelligent flash storage arrays

After 15 years of trying, researchers have created a living, self-replicating, "semi-synthetic" organism with DNA that contains not just the four paired bases that occur in all living things, but also an alien base pair created in the labs.

"What we have now is a living cell that literally stores increased genetic information," lead researcher Floyd Romesberg of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, told Nature, which published the paper, "A semi-synthetic organism with an expanded genetic alphabet," online on Wednesday.

"Life on Earth in all its diversity is encoded by only two pairs of DNA bases, A-T and C-G, and what we've made is an organism that stably contains those two plus a third, unnatural pair of bases," Romesberg said in a Scripps Institute press release.

"This shows that other solutions to storing information are possible and, of course, takes us closer to an expanded-DNA biology that will have many exciting applications – from new medicines to new kinds of nanotechnology."

The DNA bases to which Romesberg was referring are adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). The "unnatural pair", discovered after years of research on 60 candidates and 3,600 combinations, are d5SICS and dNaM, which pioneering synthetic biologist Steven Benner told Nature bear little chemical resemblance to the four natural ones.

What Romesberg and his team managed to do was insert a small loop of DNA – a plasmid into an Escherichia coli cell – that's E. coli to you and me, a bacteria that's usually harmless but can occasionally be quite nasty, indeed.

When the E. coli bacteria replicated, it not only copied its natural DNA, but also created a new pair of the alien bases, and kept doing so generation after generation for nearly a week, until the supply of the nucleoside triphosphates necessary to build the alien bases, which were in a fluid surrounding the bacteria, ran out.

That need for an alien feedstock might make you breath a little easier, knowing that when it runs out, the new E. coli simply reverted to their normal state. So much for mutant bacteria escaping into the wild and recreating a middling Hollywood potboiler starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo.

But don't relax too quickly. According to Nature, some researchers – including the highly-respected Benner – are working to engineer cells that can replicate alien bases from scratch, thus making a supply of feedstock unnecessary.

"There are a lot of people concerned about synthetic biology because it deals with life, and those concerns are completely justified," Romesberg told The Guardian. "Society needs to understand what it is and make rational decisions about what it wants."

That is, do the dangers of continually self-replicating synthetic organisms outweigh the benefits of the ability to create new forms – or, at minimum engineer forms – of life? After all, semi-synthetic life forms could very useful – Nature, for example, cites inserting a toxic amino acid into a protein that would ensure that it would kill only cancer cells, or creating glowing amino acids that help researchers track biological reaction with optical microscopes.

And then there's the matter of creating completely artificial, self-replicating organisms – and on this Benner and Romesberg disagree. "I don't think there's any limit," says the former; "That's just not going to happen," says the latter.

"We're not going to bet on either," says The Reg. ®

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
SECRET U.S. 'SPACE WARPLANE' set to return from SPY MISSION
Robot minishuttle X-37B returns after almost 2 years in orbit
LOHAN crash lands on CNN
Overflies Die Welt en route to lively US news vid
'Utter killjoy Reg hacks have NEVER BEEN LAID', writes a fan
'Shuddit, smarty pants!' Some readers reacted badly to our last Doctor Who review ...
Experts brand LOHAN's squeaky-clean box
Phytosanitary treatment renders Vulture 2 crate fit for export
Carry On Cosmonaut: Willful Child is a poor taste Star Trek parody
Cringeworthy, crude and crass jokes abound in Steven Erikson’s sci-fi debut
White LED lies: It's great, but Nobel physics prize-winning great?
How artificial lighting could offer an artificial promise
Origins of SEXUAL INTERCOURSE fished out of SCOTTISH LAKE
Fossil find proves it first happened 385 million years ago
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why cloud backup?
Combining the latest advancements in disk-based backup with secure, integrated, cloud technologies offer organizations fast and assured recovery of their critical enterprise data.
Win a year’s supply of chocolate
There is no techie angle to this competition so we're not going to pretend there is, but everyone loves chocolate so who cares.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.