Dr. Floyd Romesberg, Scripps Research Institute (photo courtesy Scripps).
Dr. Floyd Romesberg, Scripps Research Institute (photo courtesy Scripps).

For the last 14 years, Dr. Floyd Romesberg, an associate professor of chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, has been trying to figure out how to expand the genetic code.

On Wednesday, an article was published in the journal Nature detailing his recent success:  he and his team of researchers created two new nucleotides, dubbed X and Y, which they then inserted into E. coli bacteria.  The bacteria, including the two new base pairs, reproduced successfully, becoming the first living cell to contain man-made genetic material.

Read the article on Dr. Romesberg’s work in Nature here.

The article was accompanied by an announcement that a new company, Synthorx, had been created to commercialize the technology.  The business, funded by an undisclosed investment from Avalon Ventures and Correlation Ventures, holds an exclusive license on the technology from Scripps.

Synthorx plans to develop novel drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests, as well as to explore the new technology’s use in the production of nanomaterials.  Although more research will need to be done to make this practical, the potential for innovation is great.

According to Dr. Romesberg:

“Today we have shown the first example of a synthetic base pair undergoing DNA replication in a single-cell organism. The ability to incorporate and replicate a synthetic DNA base pair in vivo means that we have, for the first time, expanded the genetic alphabet to increase the amount of information that can be stored in DNA.”

Read the Synthorx press release here.

Research on artificial DNA has been going on for 20 years, and synthetic nucleotides have even been used in diagnostic tests.  Until now, however, they’ve never been able to function within a living cell.

Dr. Romesberg and his team created 300 different variations before coming up with the winning combination—one that was sufficiently stable “…and would be replicated as easily as the natural ones when the cells divide.”  (NY Times)

Court Turner, a venture partner at Avalon Ventures and Synthorx’s president, says the company is making progress:

“We have already begun to further develop Dr. Romesberg’s breakthrough technology at Synthorx and will work with partners to synthesize innovative solutions for numerous medical and technological applications.”