MOSCOW, May 8 (RIA Novosti), Nastassia Astrasheuskaya – The creation of a living organism with artificial DNA in a breakthrough advance by US scientists does not pose a threat to human safety, according to Harvard genetics professor George Church.
"This is really a safety feature so far. We should always ask such questions of new methodologies, but all scenarios envisioned so far seem tame," said Church, who helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984 and the Personal Genome Project in 2005.
Until recently, scientists believed nature-created DNA could not be altered. But Floyd Romesberg, whose team created the organism at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, proved science wrong and created a cell that could lead to new treatments in medicine and open a new page in science.
"The new base pairs were already in use. The new part is getting them to work in living cells. Not surprising, but a very elegant shortcut found via a nucleotide transporter. Note that the term 'semi-synthetic' means that they changed only a tiny fraction of a percent of the genome," Church told RIA Novosti.
Although the new DNA composition is still confined to the lab, real-world applications could become a real possibility in the future, he added.
According to the study, which was published in Nature on Wednesday, the genetic code in the modified bacteria and bugs went beyond the common G, T, C and A letters, present in all living organisms on the planet. They now contain letters X and Z, which the organism recognized as natural and will just as naturally pass them on to subsequent generations.
The study also suggests the research could go as far as to allow cells to be engineered with artificial bases alone.
Although the "artificial" part may raise concern among the supporters of "all natural," scientists assure fears of the synthetic DNA are unjustified, as are those about genetically modified foods. The authors of the study say artificially-coded bacteria would not survive in a foreign body, even if it escaped.
One of the ways to use the expanded code is in medicine. However, this will take time and money, experts say.
"Until the nucleotides needed by these cells can be made and delivered inexpensively, this method has some challenges ahead," said Church.
If implemented, the new DNA may become an important selling material in the industry for biologic and protein-based therapies, which is expected to reach $165 billion a year by 2018, according to a Wall Street Journal estimate.