After 4 billion years .... a change in the code of life

New letters have been created adding to the 4 that are making up the DNA language. This would allow to redirect the code of life to produce new proteins and potentially new life forms. Credit: Romesberg Lab

The code of life, the DNA, is based on four bases, Adenosine, Cytosine, Guanine and Thymine, pairing up in the form A-T and G-C. All living beings we have seen so far have their code of life written using these four pairs and that goes back 4 billion years.

Over the last decade, using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, scientists and researchers have tweaked with the code of life, splicing "instructions" from one living being to another and in the process they have learnt a lot on how the code actually works. It was, so far, a sort of cut and paste, you take a code developed by natural evolution from a living cell and you paste it inside another cell (from a gene and you stick it to another gene). A further step, more recent, was to create brand new "instructions" in the lab and splice them into a living cell to make that cell produce a new protein. CRISPR-Cas 9 allows the changing of a single letter in a gene sequence, so it is a very precise tool for bio-engineers to explore the code of life.

I guess some scientists started to wonder why the DNA code is based on those 4 letters, and the next logical step was to look into the possibility of adding new letters. This seems quite preposterous: life has gone on, experimenting all the while, for close to four billion years and to our knowledge never departed from those four letters. Yet, never say never.

Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have managed to create a new life form based on two new bases added to the four natural bases (named X and Y). They tweaked the code (using CRISPR-Cas 9) in such a way to have the new cell reject all coding without the X-Y bases so as to ensure that in the duplication process (as cell divides resulting into two cells) only duplications preserving the X-Y pair would be accepted.

In their experiments they have shown that this alien semi-synthetic cell can indeed "live" have metabolic processes and duplicate.

Notice that moving from unicellular life to multicellular life is more complicated (at least if we are looking at natural evolution) than moving from non-life to life.

The scientists are confident that their result goes beyond a scientific curiosity, rather it opens the door to the production of new proteins that might prove useful as medicine. One scientist in the team created a start up to bring to market the possibility of new protein creation, Synthorx.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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