But we do know that synthetic biology is moving briskly toward the goal of engineered life beyond DNA and RNA.
Recall that in “DNA” and “RNA,” the “NA” part stands for “nucleic acids.” It’s the four nucleic acids that carry the genetic information in a chemical code. The “D” and the “R,” however, stand for sugars that hold the nucleic acids in place, allowing them to form pairs and to copy themselves. Can other sugars work as well?
Recent work in synthetic biology has led beyond DNA and RNA to xeno-nucleic acids or “XNAs.” Now, using six different forms of XNAs, an international team of researchers led by Vitor Pinheiro reports success in getting XNAs to store and propagate information. One of their XNAs actually “evolved” by responding to imposed selective constraints. Their work is published in the April 20, 2012 issue of the journal Science.
Caption: Courtesy--National Human Genome Research Institute
In a commentary on the research, Gerald F. Joyce writes in Science that this work has implications for the “understanding of life itself.” In addition, it opens new insight into the possible origins of life on our planet or else where in the cosmos.
At the same time, far more work lies ahead before synthetic biologists create XNA-based life. Pinheiro’s team was able to get their synthetic XNA “genes” to interact with DNA, but “they have not yet realized a synthetic genetic system.” One big challenge is in getting XNA sequences to copy themselves the way DNA does. Some XNAs can copy themselves to DNA and back again to XNA, but XNA-to-XNA copying is not reliable.
According to Joyce, however, “future studies are likely to yield improvements of the the various XNA-to-XNA copying reaction.” If that happens, synthetic biology will take yet another step toward “synthetic genetics.”
All this prompts a warning from Joyce: “Synthetic biologists are beginning to frolic on the worlds of alternative genetics but must not tread into areas that have the potential to harm our biology.” As ever, greater knowledge brings greater risks. More than ever, public awareness and careful thought are needed.
The research article, "Synthetic Genetic Polymers Capable of Heredity and Evolution" and the commentary, "Toward an Alternative Biology," are both published in the April 20, 2012 issue of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.