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Artificial DNA breakthrough: 'Alien' life form created, are humans playing God?

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An artificial DNA breakthrough marks the first time in history that scientists created microbes containing artificial DNA. The work also gives some support to the concept that life can exist elsewhere in the universe using genetics different from those on Earth, Wednesday's report from The New York Times said. A team of researchers from the The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, California, have created what is being described as an "alien" life form in a laboratory. The scientists engineered a bacterium whose genetic material includes an additional pair of " letters," or bases of DNA, that are not found in nature. The cells of this bacterium can only replicate DNA unnatural bases more or less normally during the time that the molecular building blocks are provided.

The DNA, along with the RNA, is one of the biomolecule information carriers that encodes the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and many viruses. According to Microbiologytext, this information is stored in the matching of the four DNA bases; cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine (T).

"Life on Earth in all its diversity is encoded by only two pairs of DNA bases, A-T and C-G, and what we've made is an organism that stably contains those two plus a third, unnatural pair of bases," explains director of research and associate professor at TSRI, Floyd E. Romesberg. "This shows that other solutions to storing information are possible and, of course, takes us closer to an expanded-DNA biology that will have many exciting applications—from new medicines to new kinds of nanotechnology."

Romesberg and his lab have been working since the late 1990s to find pairs of molecules that could serve as a basis for new and functional DNA and, in principle, could code for proteins and organisms that have never existed before.

The task was not easy because any functional new pair of DNA bases would have to bind with an affinity comparable to that of the natural nucleoside base-pairs adenine–thymine and cytosine–guanine, Phys.org explained. The challenge they had was to make these artificial base pairs work in a living cell and that's what we have now achieved.

"Most people thought this wasn't possible," said biochemist Steven Benner at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla., who didn't participate in the research. "He has gone inside a cell and gotten it to work and that is a shock," said Dr. Benner.

The artificial DNA breakthrough is bound to raise safety concerns and questions about whether humans are playing God, says The NY Times. In an email statement expressing his concern, Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, a Canadian advocacy organization, wrote... “The arrival of this unprecedented ‘alien’ life form could in time have far-reaching ethical, legal and regulatory implications,” said in an email.

The results from the artificial DNA breakthrough were published on Wednesday in the online edition of the journal Nature.

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