DNA is the molecular structure at the basis of all life on earth. Encoded in the 64 possible combinations of its four constitutive bases, called A, T, G and C, are the instructions for the production of the 20 vital amino acids that make up proteins. Ever since its discovery, the possibilities that genetic modifications offer have been utilised by scientists to achieve results beneficial in an array of sectors, such as in agriculture and stem cell research. To be able to directly synthesise new DNA with certain desired characteristics almost from scratch, however, would shift the paradigm in a much broader set of biochemical applications, from polymer synthesis to immunology.
Recent research undertaken by a team of scientists lead by Jason Chin at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge has, for the second time in history, lead to the successful synthetic construction of the complete DNA of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli). There are still two major differences that make this achievement stand out significantly. First, not only is the complete genome of the replica of E. coli which Chin’ s team constructed wholly synthetic, and additionally the entirety of the new DNA is recorded and mapped. This is connected to the second significant point: the team is now able to edit and improve the DNA, simplifying how it operates the synthesis of proteins, and potentially making it immune to the attack of viruses by rendering it incompatible with the pathogen’s own DNA.
Students intending to apply for Biochemistry can further explore this exciting new horizon in scientific research, looking at the implications for medicine and pharmacy of what it would mean to be able to construct microorganisms specifically tailored for specific circumstances. Applicants to Philosophy could also reflect on heated debates surrounding the ethics of synthetic life and genetic modifications.