Artificial DNA Breakthrough: Microbes With Genetic Material Created

Thursday, 08 May 2014 07:52 AM

By Alexandra Ward

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The scientific world celebrated an artificial DNA breakthrough this week after a team of researchers successfully created microbes containing man-made genetic material.

The team from Scripps Research Institute said the breakthrough, which proved that the existing DNA code could be expanded, might one day lead to new antibiotics, vaccines, or other medical products, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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"This is the first time that you have had a living cell manage an alien genetic alphabet. Most people thought this wasn't possible," Steven Benner, a biochemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida, who wasn't involved in the project, told The Journal. "[The team] has gone inside a cell and gotten it to work and that is a shock."

Naturally occurring DNA contains four chemicals known as A, T, G, and C — adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. The Scripps team managed to meld new alphabet characters and got them to successfully function inside a living, reproducing organism.

"The cells recognized it as natural," Scripps chemical biologist Floyd Romesberg, who led the research group, told The Journal.

The experiment findings were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Though some hailed the discovery as a breakthrough, others in the scientific world worried that the ability to create artificial DNA could lead to humans trying to "play God."

"The arrival of this unprecedented 'alien' life form could in time have far-reaching ethical, legal, and regulatory implications," Jim Thomas, of the Canadian advocacy organization ETC Group, told The New York Times in an email. "While synthetic biologists invent new ways to monkey with the fundamentals of life, governments haven't even been able to cobble together the basics of oversight, assessment, or regulation for this surging field."

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