Unintended Consequences of Artificial DNA (Todays’ Most Popular)

6a00d8341bf7f753ef01156fca2926970c.jpg Cyborgs have been the sci-fi dream of a generation, merging man and machine in amazing new combinations. But a team at the University of Copenhagen think that's amateur hour. In fact they find the entirety of life of planet Earth to be distinctly underwhelming, which is why they're working on an upgrade – triple-helixed DNA.

The idea is to add a third Peptide Nucleic Acid (PNA) strand to the two Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) strands we started with. This ultimate artificial additive can regulate the activity of the existing genes, blocking some or enhancing others, and that's just for starters: the cyber-strand is not limited to the four letter vocabulary of GATC, meaning that extra characters could be added to that very exclusive club.

When a team at the Center for Biomolecular Recognition first attempted to install a PNA strand into the "Major Groove" of regular DNA (yes, this concept is so cool that even the scientific terms involved are funky), they were excited by a surprising and sophisticated effect. Because unintended consequences of far greater complexity than anticipated are exactly what you want to happen in a lab working on life-capable chemicals.

Gene Instead of a single PNA strand joining into the genetic party, two PNAs would muscle out one of the existing strands and create a region of two-thirds artificial triple-tagged helix. The displaced DNA would hang loose outside this region, forming a "p-loop" which has since been found to speed up replication of the structure. Also, the PNA-DNA bonds are stronger than the originals.

To recap: you have artificial cyber-genetics with capabilities beyond those of weak organics, they're stronger, and they can replicate faster. It's clear that this entire branch of science has escaped from a movie somehow, a conclusion strengthened by the fact that the PNA has a ridiculous weakness: water. Yes, just like Signs. No, we don't think it's on purpose.

Inside a squishy organic creature isn't a great place for chemicals that don't like water, and any PNA in a living organism is rapidly excreted – but not too rapidly for it to have effects. PNA has already been used to cure muscular dystrophy in lab animals, meaning that even without a chemical raincoat (which scientists are already working on), it's a powerful tool for controlling the very code of creation.

Scientists currently researching in the field think waterproofing their work is only a matter of time, meaning that we could be looking at triple-stranded DNA in the future. We still have a long way to go though – if expository movie computer-graphics can be believed, we need eight to recreate Leloo from the Fifth Element.

Luke McKinney


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