Triple Helix: Designing a New Molecule of Life

Peptide nucleic acid, a synthetic hybrid of protein and DNA, could form the basis of a new class of drugs—and of artificial life unlike anything found in nature

By Peter E. Nielsen  | December 1, 2008


Peptide nucleic acid (gold) readily enters DNA’s major groove to form triple-stranded and other structures with DNA, allowing it to modify the activity of genes in new ways.
Image: Jean-Francois Podevin

In Brief:

A synthetic molecule called peptide nucleic acid (PNA) combines the information-storage properties of DNA with the chemical stability of a proteinlike backbone.

Drugs based on PNA would achieve therapeutic effects by binding to specific base sequences of DNA or RNA, repressing or promoting the corresponding gene.

Some researchers working to construct artificial life-forms out of mixtures of chemicals are also considering PNA as a useful ingredient for their designs.

PNA-like molecules may have served as primordial genetic material at the origin of life.

For all the magnificent diversity of life on this planet, ranging from tiny bacteria to majestic blue whales, from sunshine-harv­­est­­ing plants to mineral-digesting endoliths miles underground, only one kind of “life as we know it” exists. All these organisms are based on nucleic acids—DNA and RNA—and proteins, working together more or less as described by the so-called central dogma of molecular biology: DNA stores information that is transcribed into RNA, which then serves as a template for producing a protein. The proteins, in turn, serve as important structural elements in tissues and, as enzymes, are the cell’s workhorses.

Yet scientists dream of synthesizing life that is utterly alien to this world—both to better understand the minimum components required for life (as part of the quest to uncover the essence of life and how life originated on earth) and, frankly, to see if they can do it. That is, they hope to put together a novel combination of molecules that can self-organize, metabolize (make use of an energy source), grow, reproduce and evolve.

via Triple Helix: Designing a New Molecule of Life: Scientific American.

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