In what seems more the plot of a SF novel than a scientific discovery, a new strand of DNA has recently been engineered in a lab (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v509/n7500/full/nature13314.html). The headlines have defined it “alien DNA”, technically a misnomer for what the term “alien” – i.e., ET – stands for, because a earthling this new DNA certainly is. On Earth it has been made, after all. But it’s also something completely different from what life has always been formed, thus, in this sense, alien is.
Not only scientists have created an organism with semi-synthetic DNA. They have also added to the genetic code that represents life of all living beings on Earth – the well-known two pairs of DNA bases, A-T and C-G – two artificial “base” blocks, which have made this E.Coli bacterium something unique. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/sarah-knapton/10814700/Living-organism-with-alien-DNA-is-created-by-scientists.html). Alien, that’s it. And guess what, it replicated – meaning is fully functional. It’s alive.
The new bases added have been called X-Y (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/05/09/health/artificial-dna-life/) , and they do bond together. But, interestingly, this new X-Y bond is different from the existing couples, because the molecules are hydrophobic — like oil, they don’t dissolve in water. This also strongly suggests there are other ways of storing information. Our DNA is just one.
Is this “the Seventh Kingdom” of life on Earth – in addition to Archaebacteria, Eubacteria, Protista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia – as Kevin Kelly, executive editor of ‘Wired’ magazine, has imagined?
Whatever the truth, if we ever wanted a proof that life could form in different ways and with other types of genetic solutions elsewhere in the universe, well, now it is there, just in front of our very eyes. We do live in interesting times.
A lot of opportunities, indeed, some of them in the nanotechnology field (http://www.seriouswonder.com/creating-alien-life-forms/), and others, even more outlandish, that we are not even able to figure out now. But so are dangers. Doesn’t the specific bacterium modified here remind you anything? No? It should. It is the same of Prey, the scaring Sci-Fi book of Michael Crichton, where a swarm of genetically modified agents become deadly to humans. Now, the organism used in that case was exactly the same.
Have a good read at the book, in case you don’t picture the scenario. It’s not a scenario you want to face any time soon, science wonders or not.