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

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

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. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
I'll be back (and forward): Hollywood's time travel tribulations
Quick, call the Time Cops to sort out this paradox!
Antarctic ice THICKER than first feared – penguin-bot boffins
Robo-sub scans freezing waters, rocks warming models
Your PHONE is slowly KILLING YOU
Doctors find new Digitillnesses - 'text neck' and 'telepressure'
Reuse the Force, Luke: SpaceX's Elon Musk reveals X-WING designs
And a floating carrier for recyclable rockets
Britain's HUMAN DNA-strewing Moon mission rakes in £200k
3 days, and Kickstarter moves lander 37% nearer takeoff
Bond villains lament as Wicked Lasers withdraw death ray
Want to arm that shark? Better get in there quick
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing and building an open ITOA architecture
Learn about a new IT data taxonomy defined by the four data sources of IT visibility: wire, machine, agent, and synthetic data sets.
Why CIOs should rethink endpoint data protection in the age of mobility
Assessing trends in data protection, specifically with respect to mobile devices, BYOD, and remote employees.
Getting started with customer-focused identity management
Learn why identity is a fundamental requirement to digital growth, and how without it there is no way to identify and engage customers in a meaningful way.
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?
Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet
Explores the current state of website security and the contributions Symantec is making to help organizations protect critical data and build trust with customers.