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

Affecting change for the Māori community

Self-determination lies at the centre of Māori culture. “It’s a way of life,” says Chris Tooley. That idea is also at the heart of his PhD studies at Cambridge and his subsequent work in Parliament and in the community. Chris grew up with a strong sense of being part of the Māori community. He has ancestral […]

On the COVID frontline

Three Gates Cambridge scholars who have been on the medical frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic will be speaking about their experiences at a virtual event next weekend. The event, organised by the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association, will be moderated by Elizabeth Dzeng, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco in the […]

New game tackles Covid conspiracies

A new online game that puts players in the shoes of a purveyor of fake pandemic news is the latest tactic in the UK Government’s efforts to tackle the deluge of coronavirus misinformation that is misleading many and costing lives across the world. Launched to the public today, the Go Viral! game has been developed by the […]

“Democracy does not work on a ‘trust me’ basis”

When Jennifer Gibson started her MPhil at Cambridge in 2001 as part of the inaugural class of Gates Scholars, no-one knew what it meant to be a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Twenty years later, Jennifer is now a human rights lawyer focused on national security issues, something she never could have anticipated, but which she credits in no small part […]