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6 Things You Won't Believe Science Can Do With DNA

DNA gets a bad rap. It's the most sophisticated substance in existence, and thanks to CSI we think of it as murderer semen. Or we watch it proving that talk show guests who everybody (including them) hopes never reproduce have done exactly that. All this, despite deoxyribonucleic acid being so smart that most people consider even being able to say it a bit fancy.

Getty
Which is odd, as the fanciest DNA often isn't passed on.

Many people see DNA as something magical written down long ago that just tells you how things are going to be. Which is a pity, because that attitude is pretty much the opposite of science. This is because journalists make more claims about genes defining your success in life than a Levi's commercial. But while fearmongers whine about scientists playing God, those scientist have moved on to playing Lego. They're molecularly MacGyvering the code of life into machinery.

#6. Walking DNA Robots

Anyone can build things to fetch stuff out of DNA, but it takes years, it shits quite a lot and by the time they're old enough to know what you want, they're old enough to be playing Xbox instead.

Getty
The instant your chromosomes get out, they act like they've escaped a Nazi prison and you were the guard.

That's why science cut out the middleman. Scientists have reprogrammed chunks as "DNA walkers," biological DNAT-ATs capable of stomping forward, winning Star Wars and fetching things.

LucasFilm
And they'll be unstoppable because nobody makes ropes that small.

Sorry; DNA walkers capable of stomping around places also made of DNA and fetching things. Fetching and assembling them into customized chemicals on a DNA assembly line. It's like Willy Wonka was a biotechnologist and thought Oompa Loompas should fit inside your cells. Another collaboration between New York University and Nanjing University decided that regular DNA strands were just too old school, building a triangular-double-helix DNA scaffold with three hands and four feet. Because those are the kinds of side effects you can expect when you twist DNA into polygons.

doi:10.1038/nature09026
It's either an insane anarchy symbol or a symbol for a highly educated Satan.

This DNA walker rolls along an entire factory floor made of DNA, picking up gold nanoparticles and assembling them into preprogrammed structures, before escaping to the surface. We know Bond villains love to announce their plans, but this is the first time they've done it in an academic paper.

#5. Accelerating Evolution With Cyborg DNA

When you think of cyborgs, you either think of RoboCop or weren't raised properly.

Orion Pictures Corporation
His entire body is either bulletproof or for one-liners.

Most science-fiction cyborgs are about giving super-powered limbs to people careless enough to lose the originals. This is not a good idea. That guy's first try with a regular arm ended with blood, screaming and emergency surgery, and instead of counseling, you're making him a Bionic Commando?

Capcom
The first time he gets horny he's going to tear off something important. And the extending cyborg replacement for that will turn him into a Japanese cartoon.

Which may be why scientists started building single-celled cyborg DNA. You might think of yeast as reason to either cut down on tequila or spend more to buy it in classier bars, but Saccharomyces cerevisiae is responsible for bread and beer and therefore more important to humanity than your entire country. Researchers took a look at this miraculous result of billions of years of evolution and said, "Yeah, that's pretty good, we suppose. But we can do better."

They built S. cerevisiae 2.0 by reformatting a chunk of its DNA like a slow hard drive. They replaced 120,000 base pairs with artificially rewritten genetic instructions. The synthetic section overrides "stop codons," which normally end genetic transcription instructions, possibly because they want to give horror movie writers new plot ideas. They also included room for extra instructions: The new genes are easier to artificially edit, less likely to accidentally mutate and more likely to deliberately mutate.

The SCRaMbLE system (synthetic chromosome rearrangement and modification by loxP-mediated evolution), and we swear that name was made by real scientists not cartoon bad guys, accelerates evolution. The artificial double helix includes regular "bookmarks." A simple chemical causes these to jump around, swapping, inverting and outright deleting chunks of the genome. So scientists can design a new organism, then fast-forward evolution by exposing it to a chemical and seeing what survives. Yes, we've just invented real-life Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-style mutagens.

Mirage Studios
Eh, still better than what we're expecting from Bay.

Their long-term goal is to completely rewrite the yeast genome, officially meaning that scientists aren't just playing God but taking over from where the last guy left off.

#4. Bacterial Computers

Evolution solves problems by thinking so far outside the box that it forgets what openable rectangular parallelepipeds are even called. Scientists want to harness this ability to solve problems in ways silicon simply can't. Because if you asked a computer to design a life-form to survive the anti-life equation of a continent that is Australia, it would never say, "Weld a duck to a beaver after filling both with poison."

Wikimedia Commons
ERROR NUMBER ... Listen, fleshbag, I don't know. Just ERROR, OK?

Another benefit of breeding computers is parallel processing. When a small population of bacterial computers reproduce, they generate new solutions and more individuals helping to find more solutions. It's the exact opposite of what happens when small human populations breed. One team rewrote Escheria coli with a puzzle coded in its DNA. Yes, just like that Star Trek episode -- but to make sure this was even smarter, they used the "burnt pancake problem," a class of sorting problem invented by a team including Bill Gates, and which is also used to define the evolutionary distance between organisms. So the upgraded E. coli are now taking on our hu-man computers and computer experts, and learning more about evolution while they're at it. And they've been coded so that solving the problem makes them antibiotic resistant. This makes them easier for the scientists to find, and makes it a tragedy Michael Crichton isn't around to write a book about it.

In another experiment, they rebuilt bacteria to solve a Hamiltonian path problem. They encoded the problem with genes for green and red fluorescent proteins -- only by solving the problem could the bacteria start glowing both to turn yellow. They've built an organism that moves through stages of glowing different colors as it solves its inner problems. That's not bacteria, that's what you start with to evolve in Dragon Ball Z.

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