Synthetic DNA? What’s Next, Synthetic Life?
By James Donahue
If you have had an interest in science and especially the news
of biological discoveries in the past decade or two, you must have stood in awe at the fact that researchers succeeded in
mapping the genetic makeup of the human body.
Researchers for the Human Genome Project, as it was called, spent
about 12 years determining the sequence of chemical base pairs that make up our DNA, and then identifying and mapping an estimated
25,000 genes that make up the human genome. Since the project was completed in 2003 the research has been centered on discovering
ways to tinker with the DNA to find cures for inherited genetic impurities and illnesses that are passed down from parents
to their children.
While all of the above was going on, Stanley Miller, a graduate
student in biochemistry, was wondering if the mixture of chemicals available in the atmosphere at the time the Earth was being
formed could generate life. As an experiment, he built an apparatus comprised of flasks, condensers, heat and electrical charges
and then added water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen to see what happened.
Miller boiled the mixture of gasses and continued to pass them
through the device that was designed to keep everything circulating. After a week of this, he used paper chromatography and
discovered that the flask contained several amino acids and other organic molecules…everything needed to produce life.
Miller’s experiment and the work of researchers at the Human
Genome Project have since opened the door to an even more amazing discovery . . . the creation of synthetic molecules that
function and even evolve just like natural DNA.
One report said the research teams believe these synthetic “building
blocks,” dubbed XNA, have been found to be capable of binding to both DNA and RNA The latter is part of a chain of molecules
involved in encoding genetic information. A research team led by Vitor Pinheiro of the UK’s Medical Research Council
Laboratory of Molecular Biology, found that the evolved enzymes that can make XNA from DNA and then can change XNA back into
DNA. The enzymes can store and copy data and duplicate everything that DNA does to replicate life.So what does all of this mean for humanity? To date the researchers are thinking in terms of using XNA
as a new tool for medical research. But as it is with all great