Genome synthesis: the path to making new life

ARTIFICIALLY MAKING genes may seem odd at first thought, but the concept is becoming a real possibility. Tagged ‘Gene Synthesis’, the implications of this process are quite staggering. Genes control every living organism in existence and are made up of DNA. DNA is made of many monomers called nucleotides which each have one of four bases attached to them. Three nucleotides code for a specific amino acid which link together to make a protein. A gene produces a small molecule called messenger RNA which is then ‘translated’ by organelles called ribosomes in the cell to create a protein. The protein then carries out its specific function. It is predicted that there are around 20,000 protein coding genes in the human genome, each with a distinct function. Therefore, if we were able to make our own genes, a whole new biological landscape would be unveiled.

Image: Flickr

Image: Flickr

Currently, to ‘synthesise’ genes, the polymerase chain reaction is used, but this is more of a ‘copy and paste’ method than synthesising DNA from scratch. Gene synthesis would allow scientists to not just copy genes, but make and alter them easily using computer technology and software. The process uses building blocks called phosphoramidites, nucleotides with added modifications for stability, which are removed at the end of the process. This would allow genes to be potentially optimised for use in model organisms that are used in the lab. The DNA could also be altered so it can be ‘cut’ in specific places in the genome by special enzymes called ‘restriction endonucleases’.

Gene synthesis is much cheaper than traditional methods of gene cloning, allowing more research money to go into other aspects of biological research. It is also much quicker than traditional methods. In addition, the method is very flexible. Any sequence of DNA could be made from scratch, allowing scientists to experiment with different sequences to find the best one possible for a function. This leads on to the final advantage which is that synthesis the construction of any sequence of DNA, even those that do not exist in nature.

Therefore, scientists could experiment with genetics and perhaps even create functional genes that are not currently in existence. If gene synthesis becomes successful, there is the potential for entire genomes to be created from scratch using these revolutionary techniques. This would allow for synthetic model organisms that could be used in a lab for molecular biology studies. The potential of gene synthesis is remarkable. How far could this take modern biology?


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