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The Synthetic Way

Synthetic proteins and life forms could be used to generate new drugs and vaccines, as well as provide a glimpse into how life on other planets might look, MIT's Technology Review says.

In particular, Tech Review focuses on the work being done by startup Synthorx, founded by Floyd Romesberg out of Scripps Research Institute. Romesberg and his colleagues have been able to create a bacterium with an expanded genetic alphabet — they incorporated two bases, dubbed X and Y, in it beyond the usual G, A, T, and C bases.

With added bases, Tech Review notes that bacteria could be engineered to produce a wider array of drugs or even entirely new proteins. "To make a billion-dollar business, yes, we need a protein," Romesberg says. "The home run is the ability to produce therapeutic proteins with unnatural amino acids in them." The company says it has been able to make a protein based on its expanded genetic alphabet.

At the same time, synthetic life forms could give a glimpse into how life may have evolved elsewhere than Earth. "Will life on Mars have a fifth and sixth base?" asks Steven Benner from Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution. He adds, "It forces you to ask unscripted questions to challenge your fundamental core hypotheses." 

This post has been updated to clarify that Synthorx has made proteins using its expanded genetic alphabet.