DNA from Scratch

Expanding the blueprint of life could yield cheaper drugs and nanomachines

DNA 2.0

Synthetic genetic code could give biology a sci-fi makeover.Hybrid Medical Animation/Photo Researchers

DNA provides the genetic code for everything from bacteria to blue whales through combinations of just four DNA units, or bases. Now chemist Floyd Romesberg of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego hopes to expand biology's potential by adding more bases to the mix.

Romesberg's team recently announced that it had successfully created two artificial DNA bases, dubbed alpha and beta, that can be replicated using standard laboratory techniques. Manipulating DNA in this way is a landmark first step toward synthesizing exotic genetic material that reacts with a broader spectrum of elements than real DNA does.

The first use for the bases could be in DNA bar codes. Because nature can't alter codes made entirely of alpha and beta, these super-specific labels could be used to track products on their journey from the factory to the cash register. Romesberg envisions, a decade out, manipulating the genetic code in bacteria to assemble better drugs or even man-made proteins. (So far, the bases work only in bacteria, so human augmentation is off the table.) Or alpha and beta could help construct nano-machines to be used for drug delivery. "This is like jumping from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age," Romesberg says. "It takes time to figure out how best to use metal."