May 9, 2014 - Scientists have created the first “semi-synthetic” micro-organism with a radically different genetic code from the rest of life on Earth.
The researchers believe the breakthrough is the first step towards creating new microbial life-forms with novel industrial or medical properties resulting from a potentially massive expansion of genetic information.
The semi-synthetic microbe, a genetically modified E. coli bacterium, has been endowed with an extra artificial piece of DNA with an expanded genetic alphabet – instead of the usual four “letters” of the alphabet its DNA molecule has six.
The natural genetic code of all living things is based on a sequence of four bases – G, C, T, A – which form two sets of bonded pairs, G to C and T to A, that link the two strands of the DNA double helix.
The DNA of the new semi-synthetic microbe, however, has a pair of extra base pairs, denoted by X and Y, which pair up together like the other base pairs and are fully integrated into the rest of the DNA’s genetic code.
The scientists said that the semi-synthetic E. coli bacterium replicates normally and is able to pass on the new genetic information to subsequent generations. However, it was not able to use the new encoded information to produce any novel proteins – the synthetic DNA was added as an extra circular strand that did not take part in the bacterium’s normal metabolic functions.
The study, published in the journal Nature, is the first time that scientists have managed to produce a genetically modified microbe that is able to function and replicate with a different genetic code to the one that is thought to have existed ever since life first started to evolve on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago.