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

Knowledge gap on zoonotic disease transmission highlighted

The impact of climate change on migration patterns, particularly in areas which depend on agriculture and livestock, could affect zoonotic disease transmission yet little research has been done to date. A new study, led by Gates Cambridge Scholar and Veterinary Science PhD student Dorien Braam [2018], looks at the research that currently exists, but calls […]

Addressing climate change in words and action

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has called for the US federal government to establish a national, robust and legally binding net-zero target that emphasises comprehensiveness, equity and clarity on the role of offsets.  In an opinion piece in Arizona Republic, Stephen Lezak and his co-authors, including Kate Gallego, the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona, which has done […]

Gates Cambridge mentors: forging bonds and giving back

The Gates Cambridge Scholars Council has been running a mentoring programme since 2018 as part of an effort to bring alumni and scholars closer together, build a stronger sense of community and to give mentors a chance to give back. This year has seen a big increase in the number of mentors coming forward, with […]

Scholar joins COP26 net-zero initiative

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been appointed as a climate change consultant on a new consortium working on a net-zero vision for the world ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference [COP26] in November. Ramit Debnath will be working on designing the India net-zero profile chapter of the vision along with in-country experts. The international […]