Scientists create first life form that is immune to viruses

Researchers in the UK forced bacteria to produce proteins that do not exist in nature, protecting them from viral infection and opening up several possibilities for use in medicine and new materials


Nuno Domínguez, El Pais

08 Jun 2021


Scientists at Britain’s MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology have rewritten the genetic code by which DNA instructs cells to form molecules, rendering the new bacteria immune to viral infection and opening up a world of possibilities for synthetic genomes.


Working with an E. coli bacterium as a base, the scientists made 18,000 alterations to create a genome that has never existed in nature, ushering in an era of completely synthetic lifeforms. When exposed to viruses, the bacterium was unaffected. The first obvious implication of the study published in Science would be to design new forms of drugs such as insulin, which is grown in bacteria, or new types of antibiotics.


One of the biggest barriers to creating artificial life forms has been introducing any substantial changes to “natural” proteins, but this has now been achieved. Led by scientist Jason Chin, the team at the Medical Research Council set out to demonstrate that the genetic code of a living being can be transformed in such a profound way that it can be made invulnerable to any bacterial virus.


Chromosomes contain four “letters” or bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). These combine into sets of three to make codons, the “building blocks” of life and also the form containing the instructions to make the 20 known amino acids.


    The pathogen will find itself in a cell with an altered genetic code and will therefore be unable to express itself and produce its own proteins

    Juli Peretó, University of Valencia


Chin’s team demonstrated how to rewrite the sequences of these codons so they have two amazing functions. The first is that they are capable of making new, artificial amino acids that did not exist in nature until now. The second is that the changes made in the genome of bacteria act as a “firewall” against most bacterial viruses...


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