What is synthetic DNA and how does it create medicines?

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What is synthetic DNA and how does it create medicines?


As of a few years ago, scientists have achieved what they call synthetic DNA. This accomplishment is undoubtedly monumental, but what does it mean, and what are its implications? Does the synthetic DNA NASA is working on fit into our lives in any way?

By Editorial Team | 12th April 2019
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What is synthetic DNA?

If you’re looking for a synthetic DNA definition, you should know that it is also known as artificial gene synthesis, or more colloquially, DNA printing. Like the name suggests, it is a way to create man-made, artificial genes. Unlike molecular cloning and other similar processes, this does not rely on already existing DNA, and the double helix DNA is entirely possible. Synthetic DNA can open a lot of doors in the realm of science, not least the world of medicine.

A brief history of XNA

In 1953, scientists revealed the structure of DNA, and 50 years later, XNA was created. While XNA carries the same information DNA does, its molecular constituents are different, and it is a synthetic polymer. The name XNA comes from the suffix “xeno”, marking the modified molecular structure of synthetic DNA.

XNA was not massively used until a polymerase enzyme was created, enabling the copying of XNA from DNA and into DNA. XNAzymes were also created, which are basically ribozymes, but the XNA version, which are not made from ribonucleic acid or DNA.

hispanic woman doctor and genetic engineering abstract. Internet of Things. 3D rendering.
XNA has great potential (Picture: iStock by Getty)
Creating medicines with synthetic DNA

The amazing thing about synthetic DNA is that it’s a major breakthrough. Medical professionals can make valuable use of XNA by manipulating it in order to stop certain diseases from degenerating. There is huge potential for this to work on most, if not all diseases, with researchers claiming that this kind of synthetic genetic material can be used in many different circumstances.

It is said that this opens up a totally new field of research on how, exactly, synthetic DNA can be used to create valuable, or even life-saving medicines. Researchers consider this to be a giant step forward in this regard.

Other possibilities with XNA

The potential with XNA seems almost unlimited, as these are the molecules that can evolve and store information. There has already been some use of synthetic DNA in vaccines that has seen success, fighting against diseases such as influenza. The virus is H3N2, and this vaccine has helped immunize against it, thus reducing the mortality rate resulting from this infection.

Female Doctor holding a stethoscope in her hands
Researchers are excited about the future of XNA (Picture: iStock by Getty)
Controversy surrounding synthetic DNA

It is, of course, understandable that such a step would be controversial, and that there will be both positive and negative factors to be considered before the widespread use of synthetic DNA is rolled out.

Obviously, the potential positive contributions are enormous. Scientists are hopeful that synthetic DNA is going to play a key part in helping us learn about how natural systems and mechanisms work. It would enable a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of aspects of nature that had previously gone unresearched or that we had not been able to shed light upon, and that cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, some are concerned about this addition, and with good reason. With things like this, there is always the potential that synthetic DNA could make people sick, instead of helping cure them, that the technology could be abused to bring too much synthetic biology into a natural world, or that it could be manipulated to be used in a harmful way.

For now, it is still too early to tell what the possible consequences would be, but the pros and cons will undoubtedly be carefully weighed up before putting synthetic DNA into everyday use.

The future of synthetic DNA

At this stage, researchers are understandably excited and they are predicting a bright future for synthetic DNA and its use in medicine. The ability to create synthetic biology is a big step and it will lead the way for all kinds of new innovative applications. The capabilities of using DNA are just now being taken advantage of, and we see that in DNA testing companies such as HomeDNA, LivingDNA, FamilyTreeDNA, AncestryDNA, or 23andMe. People from all walks of life are interested in harnessing and maximizing the potential of DNA, synthetic or not.

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