Biologists just created the world’s first stable semi-synthetic organism

Programming language genetically engineers bacteria to heal cells
Sergey Volkov/
There’s a new form of life crawling around in a California laboratory. It’s neither fully organic nor fully artificial, but falls somewhere in between. Created by a team of biochemists from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), the semisynthetic organism has DNA made up of both natural and manmade bases.

“A semi-synthetic organism (SSO) is an organism that relies on a manmade part to function as part of its essential biology,” Floyd Romesberg, senior researcher of the project and head of the Rosemberg Lab at TSRI, told Digital Trends.

Every living thing has a genome composed of four natural bases (A, T, C, and G) that form two base pairs (A-T and C-G) on the DNA double helix. Romesberg and his colleagues intervened, inserting synthetic X and Y bases into the genetic code of a single-celled bacteria.

“[Our] SSO relies on the retention of a man-made, unnatural base pair — call it X-Y — to store more information in its DNA than is possible with natural organisms,” he said.

The organism is the product of about 14 years worth of research, developing an X-Y base pair and testing its stability (it’s ability to be copied) as the cell divides. “Once we found a variant of X-Y that was well copied, we learned how to get them into a cell and found that the cell could copy X-Y in their DNA,” Romesberg said. “While this was a big deal for us, the cells were sick and the unnatural base pair was only retained in the DNA for a few generations and only when the cells were grown under very specific conditions.”

To ensure stabilization, the researchers modified their manmade base and optimized the transport protein that delivers X and Y into the cell. Finally, they utilized the groundbreaking DNA editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, programming the organism to reject any genetic sequences that lacked the synthetic pair.

The result is an SSO that can incorporate and retain multiple synthetic base pairs, practically indefinitely and in any sequence, according to Rosemberg. “Basically, it can live with increased information in its DNA,” he said.

This approach may open new doors to bioengineering, which is typically concerned with altering the sequence of natural base pairs rather than incorporating synthetic ones. The study was only conducted on a single-celled organism and Romesberg acknowledges is it not intended for more complex creatures. Instead he thinks the technique may be adapted to edit and enhancing proteins.

“Protein drugs have revolutionized medicine, but their properties are limited by the limited properties of the natural 20 amino acids from which they are made,” he said. “Giving proteins more parts, or more interesting parts selected for specific purposes, we should be able to make better drugs to treat different diseases.”

A paper detailing the research was published yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Emerging Tech

It’s no flying car, but the e-scooter had a huge impact on city streets in 2018

Within just a year, electric scooters have fundamentally changed how we navigate cities. From San Francisco to Paris, commuters have a new option that’s more fun than mass transit, easier than a bike, and definitely not a car.
Home Theater

Common AirPods problems, and how to fix them

Apple’s AirPods are among the best fully wireless earbuds we’ve seen, but they’re not perfect. If you’re having trouble, take a look at our guide to the most common problems and what you can do to fix them.
Emerging Tech

Transplanted pig hearts show promise in baboon trials. Are humans next?

Researchers in Germany have successfully transplanted modified pig hearts into baboons. The results take us one step closer to ending organ transplant waiting lists for good. Here's why.

Onak 2.0 is an origami-inspired folding canoe for waterborne adventures

The Onak 2.0 is an origami-inspired folding kayak that measures 15 feet in length when fully assembled, yet can breakdown and be stored in a small, easily transported box making it a great option for apartment dwellers.
Emerging Tech

This exotic new material somehow gets thicker when stretched

Scientists at the U.K.’s University of Leeds have discovered a synthetic material which actually gets thicker the more it’s stretched. Here are some of the things it could be used for.
Emerging Tech

Full-fledged drone delivery service set to land in remote Canadian community

Some drone delivery operations seem rather crude in their execution, but Drone Delivery Canada is building a comprehensive platform that's aiming to take drone delivery to the next level.

Print your heart’s desire: Enter our giveaway to win a free Monoprice 3D printer

We’re giving away a $400 Monoprice MP Voxel 3D Printer. It's easy to use, especially for beginners, with its simple menu system and touchscreen display. It comes fully assembled so you can spend more time printing instead of setting up.
Emerging Tech

Intel wants its fleet of drones to monitor America’s aging, unsafe bridges

Intel has signed a deal to use its Falcon 8+ drones to carry out bridge inspections. The hope is that these drones will be useful in spotting potential problems before they become serious.
Emerging Tech

An A.I. cracks the internet’s squiggly letter bot test in 0.5 seconds

How do you prove that you’re a human when communicating on the internet? The answer used to be by solving a CAPTCHA puzzle. But maybe not for too much longer. Here is the reason why.
Emerging Tech

Makerbot is back with a new 3D printer that’s faster and more precise than ever

MakerBot's new Method 3D printer aims to bridge the gap between home 3D printers and more industrial 3D printing tech. Here are a few of the tantalizing things you can expect from it.
Emerging Tech

Warm ski beanie instantly hardens into a head-protecting helmet upon impact

Wool hats are way more comfortable than hard helmets. You know what they're not? Safer. That could soon change, thanks to an innovative new ski beanie which instantly hardens upon impact.

Take to the skies with these 5 drones on sale for under $50

On the hunt for some cool tech for under $50? We've rounded up 5 drones under $50 that you can still get before Christmas. These models are great for kids, adults, and anyone just getting started with drones.
Emerging Tech

With this robotic garage, retrieving your car is like using a vending machine

Remembering where we parked our cars can be a real pain. But what if our cars came to find us, rather than the other way around? A new automated robot parking valet system aims to help.

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…