New synthetic genetic material XNA unveiled

23 April 2012

UK researchers have created a novel synthetic genetic material dubbed ’XNA’ that replaces the deoxyribose (D) and ribose (R) of DNA and RNA with alternative sugar-based molecules.
Results published in the journal Science by the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology say that the six forms of artificial XNA can store and transmit genetic information in the same way as the naturally occurring nucleic acid polymers using specially engineered enzymes, and in one case could bind to protein. This raises the possibility of research into medical applications, as well as to inform studies of evolution and the origins of life, and of exobiology (the exploration of extra-terrestrial life, also known as astrobiology).
The artificial XNAs were also more stable than their natural counterparts, which is a characteristic that might be exploited in designing novel therapeutics or diagnostics.

Comment: As with all forms of synthetic biology, further development of these artificial nucleic acids will require caution to ensure safety and public acceptability, but in scientific terms they are a crucial proof-of-concept and an exciting development. The key to this success, however, lies not so much in the engineering and synthesis of the XNA molecules themselves but of the adapted enzymes to mediate replication.