Synthetic DNA

  • April 20, 2012
Synthetic DNA

Researchers have created synthetic molecules that store and replicate genetic data.

Researchers have created the first synthetic molecules that, alongside the natural molecules DNA and RNA, are capable of storing and replicating genetic information.

Gates Cambridge alumnus Vitor Pinheiro and colleagues from Philipp Holliger’s PNAC Division at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge used sophisticated protein engineering techniques to adapt enzymes, that in nature synthesise and replicate DNA, to establish six new genetic systems based on synthetic nucleic acids. These have the same bases as DNA but the ribose linkage between them is replaced by quite different structures.

In doing this they showed that there is no functional imperative limiting genetic information storage to RNA and DNA. Therefore, the discovery has implications for the understanding of life on Earth. As other informational molecules can be robustly synthesised and replicated, the emergence of life on Earth is likely to reflect the abundance of RNA and DNA precursors in early Earth.

One of the practical applications of the techniques developed by the team is likely to be the development of functional nucleic acids, called aptamers, with diagnostic, therapeutic and analytical applications. Aptamers can have a number of significant advantages over the current small molecule and antibody-based therapies. For example, they bind their target molecule with high specificity (like antibodies) but being smaller they are expected to have better tissue penetration. They have low-toxicity and low-immunogenicity and they can be chemically modified to improve their stability and pharmacokinetic properties.

In the past making aptamers ‘body proof’ contributed significantly to production costs. The new HNA genetic system, developed by the LMB team, addresses that issue by efficiently producing molecules that are from the outset less susceptible to enzymatic degradation and better suited for therapeutic use. The development of new aptamers could be useful in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers, haematological, ocular and inflammatory conditions, and other diseases.

The research team included collaborators from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, the Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Informatics at Arizona State University and the Nucleic Acid Centre at the University of Southern Denmark. The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, the European Framework program and the European Science Foundation.

The research is published in Science today. Vitor completed his PhD in 2006 in the Biochemistry Department in Cambridge.He has been working on synthetic genetic systems at the LMB for the past couple of years.

Picture credit: dream designs and www.freedigitalphotos.net

Latest News

Shaping policy and Alzheimer’s research

Just six years since leaving Cambridge, Brianne Kent has secured a role as Assistant Professor, won multiple awards,  become the first early career researcher on the Governing Council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR] and is currently setting up her own laboratory to further her studies on Alzheimer’s disease. Since January, when she […]

Ed-tech wins Gates Foundation funding for access work

An ed-tech non-profit co-founded by a Gates Cambridge Scholar has received a $980,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop its free college affordability tool. Moneythink, co-founded by Greg Nance who is also its Board Chair, says the money will help it to accelerate the development and reach of DecidED, its free […]

Gates Cambridge: a purposeful community

As the Gates Cambridge Scholarship reaches the end of its 20th anniversary year, its alumni association is holding an event late this month which celebrates some of the factors that have shaped the scholar community. That sense of community, of a global network of leaders, developed and owned by the scholars and alumni themselves, is […]

Fibre optic project aims to improve Sri Lanka’s infrastructure

A Gates Cambridge Alumnus has formed a partnership between his university, Cambridge and Oxford universities and a local engineering company to introduce a cutting-edge technology to Sri Lanka. A team of researchers and industry experts from the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka, the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC), the University of […]