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Changes to the Code Here and There

New synthetic biology tools may enable genetic engineers to play with metabolic pathways and the genetic code, according to the Economist.

For instance, it reports that Antheia, a firm founded by Christina Smolke, is working on designing new metabolic pathways to cheaply produce opiates for pain relief and to devise ones that are less addictive.

At the same time, the Economist says researchers are re-writing Saccharomyces cerevisiae genome using an altered codon pattern in which of the usual stop codons no longer means 'stop.' This, the Economist says, means that that codon can then be made to mean something else, including an amino acid that's not currently one of the ones used in nature. As that could be extended to other repetitive codons to augment the genetic "vocabulary," it says, adding that these changes could make cells invulnerable to viral attack as they'd be relying on different codes. It adds that some of these possibilities have been hinted at through hachimoji, an eight-base genetic code.

"The potential of the existing code is enormous, the range of proteins it can, in principle, describe is barely yet explored; there might seem to be no need for such showing off," the Economist writes. "At the same time, engineers do like to tinker."