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Scientists create microbe with expanded DNA code, raising questions about regulation

Posted May 8, 2014 8:40 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Scientists have added two new man-made nucleotides to DNA to create a microbe with an expanded genetic code.

The scientific breakthrough, published online Wednesday in Nature, could lead to new vaccines and antibiotics, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) report. But critics say the development highlights the need for regulation of the field known as synthetic biology.

Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, a Canadian advocacy organization, expressed his misgivings in an email to the New York Times. “The arrival of this unprecedented ‘alien’ life form could in time have far-reaching ethical, legal and regulatory implications,” he said. “While synthetic biologists invent new ways to monkey with the fundamentals of life, governments haven’t even been able to cobble together the basics of oversight, assessment or regulation for this surging field.”

In 2010, the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues said there was no need for federal control of the research, according to the Wall Street Journal.

DNA is composed of four nucleotides, also known as bases, represented by the letters A, C, G and T. The sequence determines cell proteins and amino acids. Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute created two new nucleotides, named X and Y, and added them to E. coli. With the help of a chemical supplement, the E. coli bacteria were able to replicate the new nucleotides when it reproduced.

Scripps chemists says there is no danger the engineered microbes could cause harm if they are released or if they infect people because they need help to reproduce.


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