American scientists have, for the first time, created a life form with artificial building blocks in its DNA — essentially an alien organism born in a lab. (Via Wikimedia Commons / Spiffistan)
This marks a huge breakthrough for the field of synthetic biology. It will also likely lead to fierce ethical debates over whether man is playing God. But first, the science.
Every species on Earth — bacteria, animals, humans — has the same genetic structure, made up of four units. Those are usually represented by the letters A, C, G and T, as shown in this animation. (Via BBC)
Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute were able to add another two units, which they called X and Y. They published their research in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
After researchers chemically created the X and Y nucleotides, they inserted them into E. coli bacteria, which then reproduced normally and passed along the new genetic units. (Via YouTube / brubik)
Organisms like this could produce whole new kinds of medicine and proteins that life forms with only four units in their genetic code can't make. So, we can build it. We have the technology. The question is: should we?
A Canadian advocacy group called ETC tells The New York Times, there are ethical concerns here. "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.”
But these organisms aren't exactly better, faster, stronger — they need synthetic molecules provided by the scientists to replicate. Meaning, outside the lab in their current state, they'd either die or revert back to a four-unit genetic code.