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Scientists Synthesize Artificial DNA With 4 New Nucleobases

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New research funded by NASA has successfully created a synthetic DNA that represents what life might be like outside of Earth.

Called the hachimoji DNA, the new type of molecular system will force scientists to rethink the metrics currently in place that guide the search for extraterrestrial life in future planetary missions.

Details about the synthetic DNA appears in the journal Science.

A New Molecular System

The DNA stores and transmits genetic information that is passed down from parent to offspring in all living organisms on Earth, including humans. It is made up of nucleotides, such as adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, attached together to form two long strands that create a structure called a double helix.

The hachimoji, a Japanese word that means "eight letters," DNA does the same thing. According to the researchers, the synthetic DNA can store and transmit information. However, in addition to the four nucleotides that are also present in life on Earth, the new molecular system has four additional ingredients to the regular DNA.

The result is a double helix structure that can also store, transfer, and evolve genetic information in living organisms.

"By carefully analyzing the roles of shape, size and structure in hachimoji DNA, this work expands our understanding of the types of molecules that might store information in extraterrestrial life on alien worlds," stated Steven Benner from the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution and an author of the study.

The Grand Search For Extraterrestrial Life

The breakthrough can give scientists an idea of what life might be like in environments outside of Earth and therefore, could help identify where they might exist. NASA is already planning to explore places in the solar system where extraterrestrial life could form and thrive, including the moons Europa and Enceladus — two ocean worlds.

The creation of synthetic DNA different from what is found on Earth can broaden the search for extraterrestrial life to places that have previously been deemed inhospitable.

"Life detection is an increasingly important goal of NASA's planetary science missions, and this new work will help us to develop effective instruments and experiments that will expand the scope of what we look for," explained Lori Glaze, the acting director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA.

The synthetic DNA also has applications in other fields.

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