An amazing scientific announcement has recently occurred, we have been able to show that synthetic DNA, XNA, is capable of evolving. This is interesting for several reasons. First, it’s just more evidence of evolution, which should be a rather no brainer at this point. Second, it shows that there are other materials that can function similarly to DNA and RNA. Finally, we can make these structures and they will behave in a similar fashion to DNA and RNA.
If we can create something that evolves under stress, it indicates that evolution is still extremely robust. If this type of material did not evolve, it would have made scientists look at both that material itself and check a few things. First, would we expect this material to evolve. Second, if yes, why doesn’t it evolve. If we are developing a material that is expected to mimic DNA/RNA, it is likely that we would expect it to evolve in a similar fashion. If it doesn’t evolve, then this could have serious consequences. This would not disprove evolution, as DNA/RNA both evolve, it would indicate that either we have the wrong material or that only DNA/RNA can evolve. It would explain why only DNA/RNA have been found on earth and not any other type of xNA material.
Since this material can evolve it leads to interesting questions itself. Did evolution occur between DNA/RNA and other xNA’s? Did the RNA/DNA combination beat out every other stain of xNA’s? This would be interesting to understand. If RNA/DNA did evolve because it was better suited to Earth’s early environment does that mean that our current environment still suits it best? Could we evolve completely new life forms based on these structures? Only time and more research will allow us to answer these questions. But we do know that these new strains could allow us to develop treatments and other solutions to biological problems.
One way we could answer these questions is if we discover alien life that is based off of non-RNA/DNA combination. This could be in the form of anything from bacteria to full blown organisms. At this point, it is more likely we’ll find a bacteria life form based on another XNA than anything else as they are capable of surviving exposed space transportation, such as on an asteroid.
The fact that we’re able to create XNA is an amazing accomplishment. It indicates that we understand biochemicals required for life to an extent that we are able to create new enzymes that mimic RNA/DNA. We also understand that the most important metric for this experiment is not the fact that we could make a stable XNA, but that it must evolve. A stable or static XNA would not be interesting as it would have no ability to adapt in an environment where there is competition. The ability to change as the conditions change is what separates RNA/DNA from other proteins and enzymes. Only the best combinations are able to change and develop over time.
I’m excited to see how these changes will impact us. I think there are some significant long term implications for this, but at this time I’m not sure what they are. The fact that we’re capable of doing this is an incredible step.