Articles — 08 December 2014

It’s hard to imagine what life on other planets looks like. When you watch Star Wars and see strange looking aliens it is unbelievable that beings so different from us could actually exist, yet a recent discovery at the University of Cambridge has rattled our understanding of what makes life possible.

A research team from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, has created synthetic enzymes built from non-naturally occurring genetic material that can trigger chemical reactions. The development offers insights into the origin of life and could be utilized for gene therapy.

Enzymes act as catalysts that jump-start chemical reactions and allow them to happen at a necessary rate. They allow life to occur and are utilized by organisms to digest food, replicate DNA, etc. The study demonstrated “artificial enzymes could also be used to power the reactions that enable life to occur.” Until now scientists believed that DNA and RNA were the only building blocks of life that could store genetic information and form enzymes. The discovery implies that there are alternative molecules with the same capabilities to support life.

Dr. Alex Taylor, a lead author of the study and postdoc at the University of Cambridge comments,

“Our chemistry of DNA, RNA, and proteins, may not be special and there may be a vast range of alternative chemistries that could make life possible.”

This recent development built off an earlier study from 2012 that used non-naturally occurring chemical building blocks named XNAs. The team developed six molecules that were capable of storing genetic information and could evolve through natural selection. The group extended their previous work by using these XNA molecules to create four different types of synthetic catalysts. The enzymes called XNAzymes can catalyze simple reactions such as cutting and joining strands of RNA. A significant step towards creating a life is the ability to joining strands together.

These enzymes raise questions about what molecules are necessary for life to occur. The team suggests that a larger range of planets may be able to support life based of their work. Dr. Taylor adds, “ Our assumptions about what is required for biological processes-the ‘secret of life’- may need some further revision.” There may be organisms on other planets vastly different from the ones that reside on earth.

The study extends the frontier of synthetic biology. No longer do scientists have to limit themselves to designing genetic systems with only molecules that naturally occur. As researchers continue to design life they now have more tools at their disposable to manipulate biology.

Learn more about the development here.

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Daniel Goldfarb

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