back to article Boffinry breakthrough: First self-replicating life with 'alien' DNA

After 15 years of trying, researchers have created a living, self-replicating, "semi-synthetic" organism with DNA that contains not just the four paired bases that occur in all living things, but also an alien base pair created in the labs. "What we have now is a living cell that literally stores increased genetic information …

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  1. Schultz

    "I don't think there's any limit," versus "That's just not going to happen,"

    Gentlemen, please define your timescale. Give it enough time and there indeed might be no limit. In any case, the bet cannot be payed out unless it happens or time runs out.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: "I don't think there's any limit," versus "That's just not going to happen,"

      One, or both, of those statements always precede a poorly thought out experiment that results in some sort of hybrid monster with at least one superpower.

      I think all scientists should have a minimum of four semesters studying science fiction literature before they get their microscope and lab coat.

      1. Yobgod Ababua

        Re: "I don't think there's any limit," versus "That's just not going to happen,"

        "I think all scientists should have a minimum of four semesters studying science fiction literature before they get their microscope and lab coat."

        All the proper boffins I know were weaned on blue milk, swaddled in ridiculously long orange-brown scarves, and occassionally curse in Elvish, Klingon, future Chinese*, or all three simultaneously. I'm pretty sure they had your proposed coursework settled by the time they were out of nappies.

        Any outliers will soon be obsolete, or upgraded.

        *see "Firefly" or "Blade Runner" for appropriate references.

  2. Herby
    Coat

    I seem to get a chucle from...

    guanine (G)

    Sounds like Guano. Of course it may just be, who knows. Who names these things??

    Me? I'm outta here!

    1. Chris Miller

      Re: I seem to get a chucle from...

      Guanine was first isolated from guano (long before it was identified as a component of DNA).

    2. Crazy Operations Guy

      Re: I seem to get a chucle from...

      Would that mean that people are literally full of shit?

  3. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    BasICQ Sublime HyperRadioProActive IT …… for Colony TakeOvers and MakeOvers

    …. Planet Grab TerraPhorms

    but also an alien base pair created in the labs

    You might like to consider such a creation which morphs and contends its existence and progeny is easily reproduced and beta modified with advancing intelligence in ……… well, ab fab fabless fabs would give it/them/base pairing alien creations a certain astute autonomous active advantage in the virile spreading/seeding/feeding of its smarter improving self.

    RIP Colin Pillinger. Thanks for the memories.

  4. Feldagast

    There are plenty of times in the events of human history that we should probably not have gone there,gun powder, nuclear fission come to mind, playing around with DNA is probably the next one that will probably end with massive amounts of oh crap, wish we hadn't done that, after it escapes from some lab somewhere.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      The additional bases...

      are pretty useless as there are no transfer RNAs or messenger RNAs which complement them. What they've done is relatively easy compared to constructing the tRNA that they'd need in order to do anything useful with it. Mind you... if they modified an existing tRNA... but then they would have to code for that in DNA in order to make more of it... and then there's the many-to-one mapping of tRNA...

      There's a long road ahead of them.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The additional bases...

        Also there's probably a damn good reason evolution selected 4 base pairs given how fundamental it is and how even the slightest advantage to an alternative copying system on early earth would have probably made it the winner. Perhaps its the best trade off between copying robustness and information density.

      2. TitterYeNot

        Re: The additional bases...

        "The additional bases are pretty useless as there are no transfer RNAs or messenger RNAs which complement them"

        Maybe it's just my cynical mind, but that fact that these bases can't currently be transcribed and translated could make them perfect for the creation of unique serial numbers within genetic code.

        Oh goody gumdrops, next we'll have some government numpty trying to give us all genetic serial numbers and sticking us in a database, or we'll have big pharma copyrighting our genes and tagging them with serial numbers for when they take us to court.

        Maybe I should STFU and stop giving them ideas...

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: The additional bases...

          Or, indeed, a genetic structure based on the quadruple stereated octo-helix would be so chronically unstable for any life form that, rather than evolving slowly and steadily over many millennia, discarding a prehensile toe here or hazarding another nostril there, they would evolve several times over the course of dinner.

          1. TitterYeNot

            Re: The additional bases...

            "discarding a prehensile toe here or hazarding another nostril there, they would evolve several times over the course of dinner."

            Is that you Admiral?

            Nervous greetings to the Hagunemnon from a filthy rotten stinking sameling...

        2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Unhappy

          Re: The additional bases...

          "Maybe it's just my cynical mind, but that fact that these bases can't currently be transcribed and translated could make them perfect for the creation of unique serial numbers within genetic code."

          Handy for knowing which which clone you're dealing with.

          Sometimes called the "Orphan Black" scenario.

        3. Crazy Operations Guy

          Re: The additional bases...

          "Maybe it's just my cynical mind, but that fact that these bases can't currently be transcribed and translated could make them perfect for the creation of unique serial numbers within genetic code."

          I tend to be optimistic with science and technology, so maybe they could use the extra pairs to create a checksum for our DNA? Many years down the road we can have nano-bots that scan the DNA in a cell and if the checksum doesn't work out, it could modify the cell to prevent it from undergoing mitosis. This would prevent cells from becoming cancerous and to fight off viruses and other microbes since they would lack the proper checksum.

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Re: The additional bases...

            (1) We already have DNA repair enzymes which trundle up and down the strands snipping off loops here and there, unzipping badly replicated areas and allowing them to reform, etc etc.

            (2) Mutation is the cornerstone of evolution.

            (3) Genetic recombination is the cornerstone of inheritance, something that I'm sure we wouldn't want to do without.

            (4) Tumourigenisis can arise as a perfectly ordinary and essential part of day-to-day cellular operations. Rather like a user-installed browser-bar add-on, it can be hard to know if it's a legitimate process or something that is causing a disease.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "There are plenty of times in the events of human history that we should probably not have gone there,gun powder, nuclear fission come to mind"

      If you being shot is bad you might want to find out what happened to people on medieval battlefields. Being hacked apart with a sharp blade isn't much fun either. As for nuclear fission , I happen to think the benefits outweigh the negatives though YMMV.

  5. Neil Barnes Silver badge
    Alien

    I for one welcome

    our new grey goo overlords!

    1. hplasm
      Happy

      Re: I for one welcome

      Life imitating Prometheus... (The film, not the firebringer...)

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: I for one welcome, @hplasm

        "Life imitating Prometheus... (The film, not the firebringer...)"

        What; huge budget, washed out colours, and terribly disappointing?

    2. Euripides Pants

      Re: I for one welcome

      our new Shoggoth overlords...

  6. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Follow the Ship of Fools Lead ..... Invest All Gains in Hedges Against Losses ....

    ... and Remain Frozen Out and Petrified in Time and Space

    And then there's the matter of creating completely artificial, self-replicating organisms – and on this Benner and Romesberg disagree. "I don't think there's any limit," says the former; "That's just not going to happen," says the latter.

    "We're not going to bet on either," says The Reg.

    Do what the markets do, El Reg, and bet on both for the corrupt and perverse results that then appears, to be easily disappeared again whenever adjustments are made to more accurately reflect the more truly recognised and available data and metadata/information and base intelligence source, if you wanna play disagreeing notions and alternating derivative views and competitive and/or opposing thoughts like the Rigged HFT Game for Fabulous Profit .......which be Money for Nothing and Manna from Heaven for Some, who can easily be thinking and be led by the nose to believe that they be the Chosen Few. Those passengers though are travelling on a titanic flight path always and in all ways into CHAOS and Perfect TEMPEST Storms. ....... and I don't imagine "Tremendously Endowed Men Performing Exciting Sexual Techniques" Command and Control will be in any great rush to save and/or help them, unless they have something of particular and peculiar interest to proffer for virile virtual inclusion/prior remote proxy foreknowledge of Exclusive Executive Administration of XSSXXXX CHAOS ProgramMING. ...... Clouds Hosting Advanced Operational Systems Programming Mined Intelligence Network Games/Mind Infiltration Networking Games. ....... which be a SMARTR Advanced IntelAIgent App for the Beta Universal Management of Novel Perception and Increased Awareness in Greater Consciousness Head Quarters!?

    And shared as an exclamatory questions there, and here, to give you the cold comfort of doubt and ready excuse to do nothing further yourself except spectate and wonder and wander through the madding crowds as worlds around them are changed forever out of all previous recognition by that and those created to do it so!?

    1. Tail Up

      Re: Follow the Ship

      "Через тернии к звёздам" (To The Stars Through The Thorns AKA To The Stars By Hard Ways), USSR, 1981 - http://youtu.be/x9mLm0aRo_c @ 2'16"33"'

      "Calling Klimov. Klimov, what's going on at your side, paint a picture!

      Captain, Astra's help is needed. There's an instantly self-replicating biomass broke out in the Glan's institute. It devours all organics. It just had crashed the exits and went off. It's disastrous for all the planet. I don't know what to do.

      Red alarm, ship to landing. Prepare all transmitters. Coming to you".

      http://youtu.be/_7eD2Gy8uKg , that's all there is.

    2. Harryposter

      Re: Follow the Ship of Fools Lead ..... Invest All Gains in Hedges Against Losses ....

      Wow! Uncomprehensible, you are really from Mars...

      Is that a Random Rubbish Text Emulator you are using?

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Re: Wowing Incomprehensibility, Kapowing Nonsensicality!?.:-)

        Wow! Uncomprehensible, you are really from Mars...

        Is that a Random Rubbish Text Emulator you are using? …. Harryposter

        Most certainly not, Harryposter. But as you appear to be showing a passing inquisitive interest, please consider it more a Specific GBIrish Text Escalator and Event Mentor and/or Harbinger.

        And this might help you a bit with understanding all that ...... https://securityledger.com/2014/05/security-and-internet-of-things-can-we-talk/#comment-1377830222 ..... or not as they case can so easily be in the discussion of such Sublime InterNetworking Things.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    This is where the future will be...

    We will wipe ourselves off the face of the earth and these little creatures will evolve into intelligent beings. One group of them will believe they were intelligently designed by 'Humans' while others will shout at them because reason will dictate that they were not designed, but happened as a consequence of favourable events and evolutionary selection.

    Tiny fragments of our long lost 'civilisations' will be used by some to prove that there were 'sentient beings' inhabiting the planet before us but the Rationalisers (as they will be known - and they will spell Rationalisers with an S because in the future, everybody will speak British English) will insist that they these items were either planted, are anomalies or simply shout louder and louder so that nobody gets to see or hear about the items.

    Shame I won't be here to see it.

  8. Wokstation

    Did they forget..?

    Life finds a way! Jurassic Park said so!

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't worry

    Remember - if it bleeds, we can kill it.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Don't worry

      But should we, though. That's the question.

  10. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Go

    Interesting what this does to the range of codes

    1 codon --> 3 base pairs of 1 of 2 values --> 6 positions --> 2^6 --> 64

    1 codon --> 3 base pairs of 1 of 3 values --> 6 positions --> 3^6 --> 729

    As others have pointed out being able to encode something is only the 1st stage. The question is what will it encode to.

    1. Tony Haines

      Re: Interesting what this does to the range of codes

      Your maths is wrong.

      A (natural) codon is 3 bases each of 4 possibilities : 4^3=64.

      With an extra base-pair, it would be 3 bases each of 6 possibilities : 6^3=216.

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Interesting what this does to the range of codes

        There are only 20 amino acids, though and three stop codons. So an awful lot of redundancy already. But when you look at where the redundancy occurs, there's a bit of a beautiful thing happens in that the more frequent base pair mutations end up often coding for the same amino acid. Nature is a wonderful thing.

      2. Tony Haines

        Re: Interesting what this does to the range of codes

        pedantic clarification of my above point:

        With an extra basepair *type*, there would be two more types of base (6 rather than 4 possibilities) at each position of a triplet codon : 6^3=216

  11. Martin Budden Silver badge
    Childcatcher

    yep

    As excited as I am about this breakthrough, I can't help but agree with you: synthetic life forms will make even Queenslanders think cane toads are cute and cuddly by comparison.

  12. Vociferous

    Not quite as impressive as advertised.

    The DNA of that bacterium consists of a couple of million "base pairs", what they've done is replace ONE base pair with a synthetic pair which is sufficiently similar to the real deal that it doesn't break DNA replication. Even though only one base pair was changed, the protein the gene coded for was broken by the insertion (a so-called reading frame error*), which is why the bacterium grew more slowly (and presumably why they didn't let it replicate more than 15 generations - it was a death spiral).

    This is a nice accomplishment, but they're overselling it mercilessly.

    * ROT 1. Literally.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Not quite as impressive as advertised.

      Also, it was a plasmid that was altered, not a nuclear sequence. Plasmids are a bit like browser add-ons - sometimes useful, but not essential to the core operation - you can do without them.

    2. Tony Haines

      Re: Not quite as impressive as advertised.

      I've looked at the paper, and I think this post warrants a point-by-point rebuttal:

      > The DNA of that bacterium consists of a couple of million "base pairs",

      E. coli genome size : about 4.6 million basepairs

      > what they've done is replace ONE base pair with a synthetic pair which is sufficiently similar to the real deal that it doesn't break DNA replication.

      True

      > Even though only one base pair was changed, the protein the gene coded for was broken by the insertion (a so-called reading frame error*),

      False. It was a base *replacement*, and *not* in any protein-coding sequence. Where did you get that from?

      > which is why the bacterium grew more slowly

      False. Because a) the above, and b) because the unnatural bases and plasmid didn't make it grow more slowly. Expression of the protein required for transport of the unnatural bases into the cell did, but did so in the absence of these bases. Adding the bases caused no significant further reduction in growth rate.

      > (and presumably why they didn't let it replicate more than 15 generations - it was a death spiral).

      False. They report the plasmid replicating for approx 24 (plasmid) generations (over 15 hours of growth). They analysed reversions of the modified base position at that point; this was below their limits of detection. If they didn't supply more of the unnatural bases (which degrade over time in the culture) then over the following 6 days of growth, the plasmid would either be lost from the cell or acquire a reverting mutation. This is in no sense a "death spiral" - while the necessary materials are supplied, the modified base is maintained pretty well.

  13. CmdrX3

    Is this kind of scary?

    I'm certainly not one to hold back the tide of science, but something about messing with DNA and creating synthetic life freaks me out a little... probably too many movies. I can see there may be medical benefits but to be honest I don't pretend to know or even understand a hundredth of this level of science which is why I ask "Is this kind of scary?" rather than state a fact that it is kind of scary.... so is it :-S

  14. JCitizen Bronze badge
    Pirate

    And then came...

    The Beast from the abyss!

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