Researchers have created a living organism with a combination of natural and artificial DNA, that is also capable of creating new synthetic proteins, according a Reuters report. The breakthrough is a significant move toward the ability to create artificial life. The research was published in the journal Nature, by Floyd Romesberg, a chemical biologist at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Romesberg’s previous work demonstrated that is possible to include letters in the genetic alphabet beyond its current four letters, which include guanine, thymine, cytosine, and adenine. Romesberg’s research in 2014 created a strain of E. coli including two additional letters, X and Y, expanding the variety of “words” that DNA can contain.
The new research demonstrated that this partly artificial E. coli can read the new additions to the genetic alphabet, in order to construct new proteins with synthetic elements.
“This is the first time ever a cell has translated a protein using something other than G, C, A or T,” according to Romesberg. “It’s the first change to life ever made,” he added.
Romesberg and his colleagues have sought to accomplish this goal for nearly two decades, but not simply to create artificial life. The new research shows that life forms like the novel strain of E. coli could someday be used to create protein-based drugs.
“Proteins have become hugely important for drug discovery. Proteins are now being used as drugs,” Romesberg said.
This includes drugs such as insulin, enzymes, interferons, and antibodies, as well as diagnostic tools. In 2014, Romesberg started a company called Synthorx Inc, dedicated to the creation of new, protein-based treatments.
“A lot of proteins that you want to use as drugs get cleared in the kidney very quickly,” he explained. The new breakthrough could allow fat molecules to be attached, helping the drugs to remain in the body
“I think synthetic biology by its very nature scares a lot of people, because you’re sort of playing with life and trying to optimize it to do new things. And people say, ‘Hey, wait a minute — that could be dangerous. What if they escape into nature?’ And I think that’s a significant concern. I think people should be worried about that kind of thing.”
But he says their process requires that bacteria be fed precursors for the X and Y elements, as well as synthetic amino acids, which means they can’t survive at all outside of a laboratory setting.
“They can’t escape. There’s no ‘Jurassic Park’ scenario.”