Science & Technology

Say hello to hachimoji: Scientists just doubled the genetic alphabet

Research results hold potential to look for different forms of life existing elsewhere in the universe

By DTE Staff
Published: Monday 25 February 2019

Creating life in the laboratory is passé. But what about writing new building blocks of life? Scientists have created four new molecules that mimic the structures naturally present in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

In a DNA molecule, two chains coil around each in a double helix. They carry genetic instructions for growth, functioning etc.

DNA and Ribonucleic acid (RNA) naturally comprise four nucleotide bases — adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T) — that form hydrogen bonds in order to pair. These are the building blocks of life.

In new research funded by United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), scientists have created a synthetic DNA with eight nucleotides, forming a double-helix structure that can store and transfer information.

The eight-structure DNA can have double the information density than ordinary DNA. According to NASA, this new discovery helps the theory that there could be alternative DNA-based life elsewhere in the universe.

“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,” Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a press note.

The DNA, termed as hachimoji DNA — from Japanese letters hachi meaning eight, and moji meaning letter — not only mimicked standard 4-letter DNA, but also met Schrodinger requirements for a Darwinian system of molecular evolution.

“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,” Steven Benner from the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida, said in the note.

The study highlights the potential to look for life existing in places considered to be inhospitable till now. “Incorporating a broader understanding of what is possible in our instrument design and mission concepts will result in a more inclusive and, therefore, more effective search for life beyond Earth,” Mary Voytek, senior scientist for Astrobiology at NASA Headquarters, said.

The research has been published in the Science Magazine

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