Julie Kanya describes the potential benefits of synthetic DNA

One needs to be thankful for the invention of acronyms, because saying ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’ whenever we think of DNA would make communication a lot more difficult. First isolated by Swiss physician Friedrich Miescher in 1869, this building block of life encompasses all of the genetic information that makes us who (or what) we are. A bit short of 150 years later, the world of science is faced with the advent of artificial DNA (called XNA). Shocked? Stumped? Grateful? Whichever your stance, there is no denying that we have officially entered a new era where biotechnological possibilities are virtually limitless.

Although its existence was acknowledged by the end of the 19th Century, it wasn’t until 1953 that its emblematic double-helix structure was coined by James D. Watson and Francis Crick. They were rewarded, in 1962, with a Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking find. One could go on and on for ages about how DNA is formed by two long strands of simple units, called nucleotides, with backbones of sugar and phosphate groups joined by ester bonds. But that’s not in the least interesting. What is indeed noteworthy is the fact that there are various types of DNA (A-DNA, B-DNA or Z-DNA). And if this isn’t confusing enough, researchers from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge have proven that even the ‘D’(namely deoxyribose) in ‘DNA’ is optional: it can be substituted for another molecule.

This brand new artificial genetic material has the properties of storing information and evolving over generations, in a frighteningly similar way to DNA. Expected to shed a very different light on how molecules first amassed into life and reproduced billions of years ago, the genesis of manufactured DNA could allow scientists to redesign forms of life in vitro. And is humanity prepared to play God?

Phillip Holliger, one of the senior authors involved in this study, advocated that this breakthrough discovery proves that heredity and evolution, the two emblems of life, can be generated by using alternatives to natural DNA. One of the co-authors, Vitor Pinheiro, claims that this research redefines what we now call ‘life’ and might even help in the search for extraterrestrial organisms. Conversely, Gerald Joyce, of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, suggested that ‘construction of genetic systems based on alternative chemical platforms may ultimately lead to the synthesis of novel forms of life […] 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.’

So there you have it: mankind has officially given birth to an imitation of life. The implications for the fields of biotechnology and medical research are endless, but the ethical load this discovery carries is even heavier: should humans be allowed to make their own LEGO sets out of DNA? And furthermore, are we ready to cope with our avant-garde creation? Or are we slowly slipping into an Arthur C. Clarke-themed universe, where humanity has become too bold for its own good? Time will tell, methinks.


Julie Kanya


Image by ApersOn