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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

The Genetic ABC’s

Published May 16, 2014 2:00 PM by Michael Jones

Imagine adding letters to the alphabet. Suddenly after centuries of working with 26 letters, there are just whole new possibilities for different words and phrases that had never been explored before. How would we use the new letters? As it turns out, research scientists at the Scripps Research institute in La Jolla, CA have been asking themselves the same question, but with a very different alphabet. According a recent article from NPR, Floyd Romesberg, PhD, along with the rest of the researchers in the department of chemistry, managed to introduce two new letters to the genetic alphabet.

“This is the first time that people have integrated a truly synthetic, manmade thing into the machinery -- in this case the most fundamental aspect of the machinery, the DNA -- and used it do something that system does, in this case store information,” said Romesberg in the NPR story. “And obviously we can now store more information than we could before

Romesberg and the research team created two synthetic letters in addition to A, C, T and G (adenine, cytosine, thymine, and guanine). Not only were the new codes successfully introduced into the DNA of a strain of E. coli, but they were duplicated as the cells multiplied, implying that the codes could be passed down. Of course, the findings remain in the preliminary stages of testing, but the prospect of new genetic combinations is especially exciting in terms of its impact down the road.

“Maybe you get three consonants and one vowel. Maybe there are some words you can write and you can string them together to make, sort of, primitive stories,” continued Romesberg. “But if you could have a couple extra letters, there’s more that you could write. Having the ability to store increased information would allow you to write more interesting words, bigger words, more complicated words, more nuanced words, better stories.”

While the team’s goal was simply to create fully integrated coding for the storage of genetic information, the new letters were intentionally left unreadable to the cells. According to the article, the next step for researchers will be to use the manmade letters to “use it to do something that a cell wouldn’t normally do -- like make a new kind of protein.” Along with the potential for a more advanced ability to engineer functions at the genetics level, the research could also provide additional insight on biology and even “how life got started in the first place.” 

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