DNA is one of the molecules that is vital for life- it is found in the nucleus all eukaryotes, and in many prokaryotes. DNA codes for all organic components found naturally in the cell. It consists of 4 individual base pairs (A,G,C,T), whch pair up in an antiparallel double helix (where A pairs with T, and C pairs with G), and form a sequence that is unique to every person, plant and organism in the world. DNA is transcribed to form proteins, ultimately creating all cellular components including membranes, enzymes, and internal cellular structures.
The human genome consists of 3 billion+ base pairs of DNA. Only ~1.5% of the genome consists of genes (~22,000 genes in humans), and the rest is either transcribed for unknown purposes, forms untranscribed DNA control elements, or is ‘non-coding’ DNA.
Can we make an entire artificial human genome?
Recently it was announced that the Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-Write) will be the first to attempt to synthesise the entire human genome (all 3 billion+ base pairs!) entirely from its chemical components. This is a forseeably challenging project- they aim to slowly replace a human cell’s DNA with artficially constructed DNA, by cutting out and replacing sections gradually.
Naturally, this is interesting to a lot of geneticists- what could we acheive if we could mix together chemicals in a test tube and create the code for life? Of course it is more complex than this, but the idea still stands, and it opens up a whole load of questions regarding the research potential and ethics behind artifically synthesising something that is such an innate feature of life.
Why is this important? and what problems could this cause?
Artificially synthesising DNA would be a massive step forward in scientific research, as it may allow more human testing of medicines and vaccines, and will contribute massively to our understanding of the human genome. However, critics are concerned that this research could lead to the prodution of human cells that do not have a parent cell- something that has never been done before, and could be seen as creating a new form of life. The ethical issues that would arise may also be problematic, as it would potentially lead to editing the human genome beyond a natural level (see also my recent article on CRISPR-Cas9).
But this is far off in the future- human genome editing would not happen for many years and if it does, there will be a lot of legal restrictions surrounding it. For now, these scientists are contributing towards the exciting new age of genomic technology, and if successful, will incur new possibilities of genetic study.
The article: Boeke et al. The Genome Project-Write. 2016. Science