Scientists Create Synthetic Proteins that Sustain Life

2010 ended as a year of astounding breakthroughs in virtually all the sciences.

The science of biology led the way with one stupendous breakthrough and revelation after another. So fast a pace did the breakneck breakthroughs occur that often it seemed a day barely passed before another jaw-dropping revelation was revealed from one university lab or another in the U.S., Europe, Russia, Asia and Australia.

In the closing days of the last month of the year, Princeton scientists achieved yet another scientific marvel when they successfully created the world’s first synthetic proteins that sustain life.

Michael Hecht, a professor of chemistry at Princeton, who led the research team told that “What we have here are molecular machines that function quite well within a living organism even though they were designed from scratch and expressed from artificial genes.”

The fact that synthetic proteins work with existing life opens the door wide for synthetic life and artificial designer life in the future. The prospect is just around the corner and already legal experts are wrestling with what life may or may not be patentable.

“This tells us that the molecular parts kit for life need not be limited to parts—genes and proteins—that already exist in nature,” Hecht explained.

The synthetic proteins were used to sustain life—in this case bacteria. Such a feat has never before been achieved. It’s a huge breakthrough in the field of biology and a gigantic step towards the ultimate goal of creating a self-sustaining synthetic genome: life designed to order in the laboratory.

Our work suggests,” Hecht said, “that the construction of artificial genomes capable of sustaining cell life may be within reach.”

The Princeton team led by Hecht created nearly one million amino acid sequences. Their architecture permitted them to become stable 3D structures. All were artificial proteins unknown in nature.

Michael Fisher from the University of California-Berkeley, is one of the co-authors of the paper that was published the first week of January 2010 in the journal Public Library of Science ONE. He stated that “What I believe is most intriguing about our work is that the information encoded in these artificial genes is completely novel—it does not come from, nor is it significantly related to, information encoded by natural genes, and yet the end result is a living, functional microbe.”

Asked to relate the significance of the achievement in layman’s terms, Fisher drew this analogy: “It is perhaps analogous to taking a sentence, coming up with brand new words, testing if any of our new words can take the place of any of the original words in the sentence, and finding that in some cases, the sentence retains virtually the same meaning while incorporating brand new words.”

As the team experimented with novel proteins completely created in the lab, they struck pay dirt. Several of the proteins were accepted by the bacteria for critical life functions. It was a Eureka! moment in the Princeton labs. “These artificial proteins bear no relation to any known biological sequences, yet they sustained life,” explained Hecht.

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, has created another new foundation for the creation of designer life with applications in agriculture, manufacturing and even outer space.