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from Singularity Hub
by Shelley Fan, June 8, 2021
Can we reprogram existing life at will?
To synthetic biologists, the answer is yes. The central code for biology is simple. DNA letters, in groups of three, are translated into amino acids—Lego blocks that make proteins. Proteins build our bodies, regulate our metabolism, and allow us to function as living beings. Designing custom proteins often means you can redesign small aspects of life—for example, getting a bacteria to pump out life-saving drugs like insulin.
All life on Earth follows this rule: a combination of 64 DNA triplet codes, or “codons,” are translated into 20 amino acids.
But wait. The math doesn’t add up. Why wouldn’t 64 dedicated codons make 64 amino acids? The reason is redundancy. Life evolved so that multiple codons often make the same amino acid.
So what if we tap into those redundant “extra” codons of all living beings, and instead insert our own code?
A team at the University of Cambridge recently did just that. In a technological tour de force, they used CRISPR to replace over 18,000 codons with synthetic amino acids that don’t exist anywhere in the natural world. The result is a bacteria that’s virtually resistant to all viral infections—because it lacks the normal protein “door handles” that viruses need to infect the cell.
But that’s just the beginning of engineering life’s superpowers. Until now, scientists have only been able to slip one designer amino acid into a living organism. The new work opens the door to hacking multiple existing codons at once, copyediting at least three synthetic amino acids at the same time. And when it’s 3 out of 20, that’s enough to fundamentally rewrite life as it exists on Earth.
We’ve long thought that “liberating a subset of…codons for reassignment could improve the robustness and versatility of genetic-code expansion technology,” wrote Drs. Delilah Jewel and Abhishek Chatterjee at Boston College, who were not involved in the study. “This work elegantly transforms that dream into a reality.” ... Continue reading to learn more about hacking the DNA code