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

Towards better public service delivery in Pakistan

Rafi Kakar [2024] is keen to contribute to better public service delivery and development outcomes in Pakistan by employing a research approach that blends theory with the realities of public policymaking. He believes that the devolution of social sectors to the provinces in 2010 has created both challenges and opportunities for governance reforms and improvements […]

Using virtual reality in the service of stroke recovery

Brielle Stark [2012] is pioneering new ways of approaching the language problems faced by stroke patients. She was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholar Award to conduct research in Australia, starting in Spring 2025. She will be moving to Australia to work with her long-time colleague Dr Lucy Bryant at the University of Technology Sydney on […]

The ethical implications of AI

Three Gates Cambridge Scholars address the ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence and the need for ethics to keep up with the pace of change in AI in the fourth episode of the Gates Cambridge podcast, So, now what? out today [30th May]. The episode, featuring Andreas Vlachos, Kerry McInerney and Richard Diehl Martinez was hosted […]

Rethinking feminist approaches to gender-based violence

Ilaria Michelis [2019] was completely surprised when, earlier this year, she was awarded this year’s Journal of Gender Studies Janet Blackman Prize. The Prize celebrates scholarship on international feminist movements and trade unions/women in work.  It was awarded for an article she published the year before in the Journal of Gender Studies based on an issue […]