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ZNA: A new genetic support for biology and medicine

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Researchers from the Rega Institute for Medical Research (Belgium) and Genoscope (France) united their know-how to synthesize a novel nucleic acid unknown in nature (ZNA) but nonetheless capable of carrying genetic information, like its natural counterparts, DNA and RNA. Their work was published in the Journal for the  American Chemical Society.

Published on 9 August 2019

​Using an original chemical method and a DNA synthesizer, the team's members were able to elaborate their polymer, a new member of the family of molecules called xenobiotic nucleic acids. To validate its eligibility as a new synthetic tool for genetics, they performed a number of in vitro and in vivo experiments reflecting evolutionary phenomena. Escherichia coli was used for in vivo experiments to assess the incorporation of the new nucleic acid in the bacterium's DNA , among other endpoints. The team also showed that the artificial genetic polymer was able to precisely transmit genetic information via the classic "genetic alphabet" (the letters used to identify the nucleobases, i.e., A: adenine, T: thymine, G: guanine, C: cytosine, and U: uracil). 

Comprising a strong carbon-phosphorus bond, ZNA offers increased chemical stability, an advantage that should allow it to outperform DNA for long-term information storage in such future-looking sectors as biotechnology, renewable energy and medicine.

ZNA's novel backbone should show particular interest as a partner to novel base pairs currently being added to the genetic alphabet by several research groups. Xenobiology, a new field stretching the bounds of traditional biology, has marked a decisive turning point with these discoveries, showing that the range of chemical supports capable of transmitting hereditary information goes well beyond those found in nature. With their work, the Rega-Genoscope team  seeks to mobilize chemistry's resources for the deployment of new nucleic vectors in diagnostics and therapeutics.

Fundamentals on the genetic alphabet :

  • In nature, genetic information is stored and deployed via only two nucleic acids : DNA and RNA. In the lab however, scientists are now capable of synthesizing artificial nucleic acids that are also capable of stocking, proliferating and expressing genetic information in the same manner as DNA and RNA.

  • In all known living species, nucleic acids are the primary vehicles of genetic information. DNA stores that information and can reproduce it by a process called replication. From the DNA, the genetic information may also be expressed, first by transcription into RNA than translation into proteins. Replication, transcription and translation all depend on the creation of a template, that is, a single-stranded DNA or RNA upon which another molecule forms via base pairing (G with C; A with T or U) or codon (a triplet of bases) reading.

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