It is the most spectacular and involving of clichés: All life is one. Every single living organism, from the pulsating microbes squelching in primordial ooze to the teeming masses of human beings covering the four corners of the globe, is built from the same basic building blocks. Four simple nucleotides, linked molecules that form the devastatingly elegant double helix of DNA, constitute life’s foundation stones: A, C, G, and T. The sequenced letters guide the formation of proteins, the engines of cells and the engines of life itself. They are life’s original manuscript, the language of creation weaving the story of existence.

 

Imagine, then, if it was possible to change the language of creation, to add letters to the alphabet of life. Whole new stories could be written, supremely original narratives spun into being. It would be the dawn of a brave new world, to be sure.

 

In essence, this is exactly what a group of scientists at Scripps Research Institute claim to have done. They created two brand-new nucleotides, dubbed X and Y,and inserted them into a strand of E coli bacteria. Lo and behold, the bacteria reproduced, passing along the alien DNA to their immediate reiterations.

 

It is easy for the mind to roam far and wide beyond the simple metrics of this groundbreaking achievement. What if we could add to life’s alphabet at will? What new proteins could we create, what new organisms could we pull into existence? Already, companies developing protein-based drugs are springing up, eager to plumb the depths of synthetic biology to combat disease and achieve monumental leaps in medicine.

 

There is a darker side at play, as well. The uncharted wilds of artificial DNA are nearly absent of oversight and regulation, and advocacy groups warn of unintended consequences such as the escape of alien DNA from the controlled confines of a laboratory. Perhaps, this brave new world opening on the horizon will prove far deadlier than imagined.

 

At the moment, though, life moves apace. The Scripps scientists have noted that their alien strands cannot survive outside of the lab, dependent as they are on synthetic compounds for existence. Progress is in its infancy, and any revolutionary breakthroughs are relegated to the distant future and the leaps of vivid imaginations. There is no doubt, though, that the Scripps discovery is a game-changer. That alone is reason to celebrate.

 

What do you think of this new scientific breakthrough? Do you think this is a positive or a negative step for humanity?  Let’s talk here in the comments, or you can find me on Twitter @aa_murph