A NASA-funded study has taken the limits of biology to another level by creating a synthetic DNA with eight letters.
According to experts, this synthetic DNA could prove to be useful in understanding how life could be like in distant parts of the universe.
As noted by NASA, “this unprecedented feat suggests there could be an alternative to DNA-based life, as we know it on Earth – a genetic system for life that may be possible on other worlds.”
Life as we know it is based on a DNA with 4 building blocks (or letters): adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), cytosine (C).
However, a group of American scientists has added four additional nucleotide bases creating an 8-letter DNA.
“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, acting director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
The research, funded by NASA and led by Steven Benner at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida with collaboration from laboratories at the University of Texas in Austin, Indiana University Medical School in Indianapolis, and DNA Software in Ann Arbor, Michigan, dubbed the creation “hachimoji” DNA
Hachimoji comes from the Japanese word “hachi,” meaning “eight,” and “moji,” meaning “letter”.
As explained by scientists, the new synthetic DNA meets all the structural requirements that allow our DNA to store, transmit and evolve information in living systems.
“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,” said Benner.
One of the main goals of creating Hachimoji DNA goes far beyond anything we have ever known.
This synthetic DNA was created in a laboratory with expectations of explaining situations that do not occur in nature (at least on our planet).
In other words, the new synthetic DNA was created in order to help scientists understand how life would work in other parts of the universe.
This could be especially relevant for NASA since it would help scientist understand what sorts of lifeforms could form in distant parts of the universe.
“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,” said Mary Voytek, senior scientist for Astrobiology at NASA Headquarters.
“The discovery that DNA with eight nucleotide letters is suitable for storing and transmitting information is a breakthrough in our knowledge of the range of possibilities necessary for life,” said Andrew Serazin, president of Templeton World Charity Foundation in Nassau, The Bahamas, which also supported this work.
“This makes a major contribution to the quest supported by Templeton World Charity Foundation to understand the fundamental role that information plays in both physics and biology.”