Breakthrough: Synthetic proteins enable cell growth

Princeton scientists create synthetic proteins that enable cells to grow.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Michael Hecht is holding up samples of bacteria that could potentially change the course of synthetic biology. This is the first time artificial proteins have been created, and have enabled living cells to grow.

Essentially, Princeton's chemist Hecht built life from scratch, and showed that synthetic proteins could support life.

Now, this is a big deal.The Princeton researchers explained the role of proteins:

Proteins are the workhorses of organisms, produced from instructions encoded into cellular DNA. The identity of any given protein is dictated by a unique sequence of 20 chemicals known as amino acids. If the different amino acids can be viewed as letters of an alphabet, each protein sequence constitutes its own unique "sentence."

The scientists created a library of synthetic proteins, from which they made 1 million amino acid sequences that could fold into three-dimensional structures. Using information from genetic material that is completely new (and can't be found in nature), the scientists showed that living cells could thrive when injected with artificial proteins.

To prove their case, the scientists inserted the synthetic proteins into strains of bacteria. The bacteria's original set of genes were deleted. Getting rid of the genes caused the bacteria to die - unless, of course, the mutated bacteria were injected with synthetic proteins.

"Since our collections of designed proteins are expressed from synthetic genes in living cells, we can now construct artificial 'genomes' comprising sequences that never before existed in biology, but nonetheless can provide functions necessary to sustain the growth of living cells," Hecht previously wrote.

Last year, J. Craig Venter announced the creation of a synthetic cell - the world's first self-replicating life form. But critics argue that Venter didn't build life from scratch because he used a natural genome as a blueprint, according to Popular Science.

Either way, the emerging field of synthetic biology might lead to the development of new medicines or new energy sources.

Not to mention, amateur biotech labs are springing up throughout the country.Make sure to see my recent coverage on Do-it-yourself lab lets geeks conduct their own experiments, where the founders of the nation's first biotech lab decided to involve the FBI. The amateur biologists wanted to make sure the government knew there was no funny business going on there.

The idea of creating life scares people. What if the new life form causes harm? The critics are worried about the chance a new organism could spread diseases or contaminate the environment - and worse, be used as biological weapons.

Synthetic biology is in its infancy stage, and the risks remain to be seen. To explore possibilities, President Obama asked for a review of synthetic biology after Venter's announcement last May. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues recently released its first report. The executive summary said:

The technical feat of synthesizing a genome from its chemical parts so that it becomes self-replicating when inserted into a bacterial cell of another species, while a significant accomplishment, does not represent the creation of life from inorganic chemicals alone...What remains realistic is the expectation that over time research in synthetic biology may lead to new products for clean energy, pollution control, and more affordable agricultural products, vaccines, and other medicines. The Commission therefore focused on the measures needed to assure the public that these efforts proceed with appropriate attention to social, environmental, and ethical risks.

Environmental groups are concerned about the consequences of the technology, as they outlined in a letter to the commission.

However, manipulating DNA isn't a new concept. But creating synthetic life is becoming more reality than science fiction, and Hecht's laboratory is helping us get there.

"What we have here are molecular machines that function quite well within a living organism even though they were designed from scratch and expressed from artificial genes," Hecht said in a statement. "This tells us that the molecular parts kit for life need not be limited to parts -- genes and proteins -- that already exist in nature."

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