It may sound like science fiction, but researchers at Yale and Harvard have taken the first steps towards a Dr. Frankenstein-type reality, by fundamentally changing the genetic code of an organism.
The scientists were able to rewrite the genetic alphabet of the common bacteria E.coli, creating their very own E.coli organism that was engineered to be resistant to viral infections.
“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. “Creating an organism with a new genetic code has allowed us to expand the scope of biological function in a number of powerful ways.”
Isaacs co-authored the study published in the Science journal this month with George Church of Harvard Medical School and the research is based out of the field of synthetic biology, which seeks to re-design natural biological systems for useful purposes.
To change the bacteria, Isaacs worked with other researchers to substitute different codons or letters (that make up the nucleic acids of DNA) to create amino acids not found in nature.
This marks the first time an organism has successfully had its genetic code completely changed through its genome via man-made means.
“Since the genetic code is universal, it raises the prospect of recording genomes of other organisms,” Isaacs said. “This has tremendous implications in the biotechnology industry and could open entirely new avenues of research and applications.”
Not only did the team make the bacteria more resistant to viral infections they were able to change certain molecules that eventually could result in “a new generation of materials … and drug delivery vehicles,” that could in theory change the way medicines are administered on a molecular level, Isaacs said.