First organisms with synthetic DNA become viable

Signal of change / First organisms with synthetic DNA become viable

By Joy Green / 31 Jan 2017
Thriving microbes with partially synthetic DNA have been created at the Scripps Research Institute in California. Unlike natural organisms which have DNA code made up from four letters (G, T, C and A), these genetically modified bacteria have DNA code with six letters, two of which are wholly synthetic and known as X and Y. The researchers describe the modified microbes as a starting point for efforts to “create organisms with wholly unnatural attributes and traits not found elsewhere in nature.” The cells constitute a “stable form of semi-synthetic life” and “lay the foundation for achieving the central goal of synthetic biology: the creation of new life-forms and functions”. The aim of this particular research is to create programmable microbes that can generate new proteins for use as drugs or new materials.

So what?

Scientists expect this breakthrough to revolutionise the production of proteins, perhaps leading to new and better medicines. However there is much to be cautious about from an ethical and environmental point of view, in the absence of effective global policy to govern the production of such organisms. While the Scripps researchers have been careful to build in failsafes to protect against accidental environmental release, others may not be so diligent. There is also a deeper question about the ‘framing’ view of life that this type of work can engender, where life-forms are increasingly no more than squishy programmable machines to be tweaked and exploited for commercial benefit. How can this mindset be guarded against, as synthetic biology gains in prominence?


What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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