World’s First Semi-Synthetic Lifeform Created
Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in San Diego, California synthesized DNA in 2014 and used the base pairs to create a life form using E.coli bacteria. The bacterium was lab-created, but also a one-time lifeform, unable to reproduce. TSRI researchers continued to work to develop techniques leading to an artificial lifeform that could reproduce and survive for relatively long periods of time.
In January 2017, the TSRI team announced they had solved the problem of reproduction, creating a “a fully stable semi-synthetic living organism.” TSRI professor Floyd Romesberg said “We can now get the light of life to stay on.” Romesberg believes that all living organisms can be manipulated using genetic modification techniques, including CRISPR-Cas9.
The organism created through the genetic modification techniques is a very simple bacterium. TSRI researchers caution that it is only a beginning step, and does not mean that scientists can build complex life forms in the lab. The new technique simply means they have conquered additional challenges related to cell reproduction.
Scientists do not just refer to the bacterium as “semi-synthetic life” because it came from a lab. TSRI’s Romesburg explains that in nature, DNA, the genetic life code, contains only four natural bases, A, T, C and G. These bases are made up of amino acids. The TSRI team created two new qualifying bases, which they refer to as X and Y.
Adding the two new bases to the four natural DNA bases enables more combinations of pairs, resulting in a partial or semi-synthetic structure and a unique, new living organism that lives only in the lab. The research process has resulted in a more “lifelike” organism, according to Romesberg.
There are no current practical applications for the semi-synthetic organism. The next step for the researchers is learning how the new artificial genetic code can be used in RNA, the cell molecule that translates DNA into proteins in life processes.