Scientists have made a breakthrough by creating the first ‘semi-synthetic’ micro-organism in history. It is the first of its kind in the known biological history of the earth and represents a step forward for synthetic biology, the Independent reports.
The microbe, a modified E. coli bacterium, has been given an artificial piece of DNA beyond the two that are possessed by all other known forms of life. The genetic code that occurs in nature involves a sequence of four bases: G, C, T, and A. These four form into sets of bonded pairs – G pairs with C, T pairs with A – and this forms the double helix of DNA. This new, semi-synthetic microbe contains an extra pair of bases, X and Y, which pair up the way the other sets do and are fully integrated into the DNA’s code.
According to scientists, the new strain of E. coli is able to replicate normally, and pass on the newly introduced genetic material on to its progeny. What it cannot do, at this point, is produce any novel proteins with the new information. The extra circular strand of synthetic DNA that was added played no part in metabolic functions.
“This shows that other solutions to storing information are possible,”said Professor Floyd Romesberg of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, “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.”
In order to maintain their synthetic codes, the bacterium must be consistently fed chemicals that do not exist in nature so there is little risk of the new life-forms existing outside the confines of a lab.
To read more about the new semi-synthetic lifeform, check out the article at the Independent.