After 15 years of work, scientists have successfully created a living cell that contains two unnatural DNA building blocks. The breakthrough brings us one step closer to being able to synthesise cells that can produce drugs on demand. It even opens the door to a future where we could create life that’s unlike anything ever found on Earth.
“What we have now is a living cell that literally stores increased genetic information,” explains Floyd Romesberg, who has led the research for the past decade and a half. It’s also worth highlighting that we’ve convinced natural life to live in harmony with synthetic genetic material — which is huge. After all, we’ve created synthetic DNA before. But this is a new kind of cyborg DNA, and it’s potentially much more powerful.
Nature refers to these artificial bases somewhat extravagantly as “alien”. And while scientists certainly aren’t dealing with aliens from space, they are dealing with something entirely foreign. Life on Earth has always contained the same four DNA subunits — also known as nucleotides — represented by the letters A, T, C and G. Now, the possibilities are seemingly endless, as scientists have literally expanded that alphabet to include at least two new, unnatural subunits.
That said, we now know that the old four-letter DNA model isn’t the only way to create life. Some even think that it’s possible to create an organism solely out of the foreign nucleotides. These bear little resemblance to the four natural ones according to Steven Benner, who pioneered this type of research back in the 1980s. “I don’t think there’s any limit,” Benner told Nature. “If you go back and rerun evolution for four billion years, you could come up with a different genetic system.”
So that’s pretty mind-bending. However, it’s also incredibly hopeful as this kind of science could help us do great things like cure cancer. That is, if we don’t accidentally create some new kind of cancer first. [Nature]