Scientists rewrite organism's genome for the first time in history

Brace yourselves, for science has taken a step into a path from which there's no way back: a group of researchers at Yale and Harvard have rewritten the entire genetic code of a living organism for the first in history. Not only that, but they have made it resistant to sickness in the process, Physorg reports:

"This is the first time the genetic code has been fundamentally changed," said Farren Isaacs, assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale and co-senior author of the research published Oct. 18 in the journal Science. "Creating an organism with a new genetic code has allowed us to expand the scope of biological function in a number of powerful ways."

According Physorg, this opens the possibility to a full retooling of nature to "create potent new forms of proteins to accomplish a myriad purposes—from combating disease to generating new classes of materials."

But of course, we know that this will not stop in modifying bacterium and proteins. As complete genetic maps for higher organisms get completed and computer processing power and storage increase, so will be the opportunity of modifying more complex beings. Clearly, we're headed to a world in which full genetic recoding of any plant or animal, including humans will be a possibility.

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What's going on here is actually a lot more profound than the description, because we rewrite the genetic codes of organisms all the time. I'm running an experiment at this very moment that's inserting a GFP plasmid into HeLa cells, and it actually contains a selection sequence that makes it resistant to a certain antibiotic. It's basically the same method for how insulin is manufactured.

What they did was essentially introduce a way for non-traditional amino acids to be used in protein synthesis. Typically, there are 20 amino acids that are used in protein synthesis (proteinogenic amino acids), even though there are many different kinds of amino acids out there (and there are some species that use the non-traditional 20. We actually use 22 IIRC). In order for this to work, it requires adding information to our library of transfer RNA (tRNA) and aminoacyl transferases.

Basically, tRNA is what links the genetic code and the sequence of a growing polypeptide (protein). Amino acids are physically linked to tRNA by these aminoacyl transferases, and when the tRNA matches up with the messenger RNA (mRNA) that contains the DNA blueprint for a protein, its amino acid is added to the chain. And this process occurs in codons, which are groupings of 3 nucleotides. What's impressive about this is that tRNA and aminoacyl transferases have to be specific to ONE amino acid, or else there would be no way to get a specific protein sequence.

If there are therapeutic molecules we can derive from microbes that use nonstandard amino acids and are hard to culture, this could actually be an extremely useful method for producing those therapeutic molecules in other organisms.