31 January 2008

Radical DNA Future--Genetic Engineering Squared

Now that scientists are learning to insert artifical nucleic acid bases into DNA sequences, we are off for a wild ride in genetic engineering. Combining artificial nucleic acids with artificial amino acids should yield radically new peptides and enzymes, with designable shapes and characteristics.
Two artificial DNA "letters" that are accurately and efficiently replicated by a natural enzyme have been created by US researchers. Adding the two artificial building blocks to the four that naturally comprise DNA could allow wildly different kinds of genetic engineering, they say.

Eventually, the researchers say, they may be able to add them into the genetic code of living organisms....The unnatural but functional new base pair is the fruit of nearly a decade of research by chemical biologist Floyd Romesberg, at the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California, US.

Romesberg and colleagues painstakingly created a library of nearly 200 potential new genetic bases that are slight variations on the natural ones. Unfortunately, none of them were similar enough in structure and chemistry to the real thing to be copied accurately by the polymerase enzymes that replicate DNA inside cells....The team is now eager to find out just what makes it work. "We still don't have a detailed understanding of how replication happens," says Romesberg. "Now that we have an unnatural base pair, we are continuing experiments to understand it better."

In the near future, Romesberg expects the new base pairs will be used to synthesize DNA with novel and unnatural properties. These might include highly specific primers for DNA amplification; tags for materials, such as explosives, that could be detected without risk of contamination from natural DNA; and building novel DNA-based nanomaterials....Romesberg notes that DNA and RNA are now being used for hundreds of purposes: for example, to build complex shapes, build complex nanostructures, silence disease genes, or even perform calculations. A new, unnatural, base pair could multiply and diversify these applications.

The most challenging goal, says Romesberg, will be to incorporate unnatural base pairs into the genetic code of organisms. "We want to import these into a cell, study RNA trafficking, and in the longest term, expand the genetic code and 'evolvability' of an organism."
New Scientist
Initially, the new DNA's will be used to study replication, then altered transcription and translation. But soon, all bets are off. Other artificial base pairs will be designed and built, and we will be off to the races.

Such discoveries illustrate how limited our understanding of basic life processes have been. If the enemies of genetic engineering thought they understood "the enemy," they could not have been more wrong.

More information at links at Brian Wang's NextBigFuture

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Blogger Snake Oil Baron said...

The next big limitation (besides a finite level of funding for a near infinite avenues of research) is the number of educated people needed to pursue the many opportunities opening up.

Artificial intelligence has begun to help sort through the accumulating data and (I hear) even form and test hypotheses but we will need far better to take advantage of the rapid explosion in knowledge in fields that are too diverse for humans to be generalized in. There has never been a time when the need for computer intelligence has been so great.

Thursday, 31 January, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Interesting point, Baron.

I suspect that there are a lot more trained bioscientists and biotechnicians than most people realize.

As you point out, the bioinformatics explosion combined with constantly improving computing technology, will be a huge help in converting the potential of biotech to reality.

The truly revolutionary field soon to erupt is the convergence of nanotechnology and biotechnology. I include synthetic biology within that convergence, but there is enough else under the same umbrella to dwarf S.B.

Thursday, 31 January, 2008  

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