Genetic Engineers Created New DNA with 8 Letters… What Now?

This episode of Uno Dos
of Trace was graciously supported by Curiosity Stream. DNA is incredible. You exist because of this
mix of four chemicals, adenine and guanine,
cytosine and thymine. And they pair off, and they
create instructions for life. But why four? And why these four? And where do these come from? And what if there
are more than four? And you saw the
title, so you actually know the answer to that one. But still, I have questions. [MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to Uno Dos of Trace. I love that you’re here. Thank you for your support. And if you haven’t already,
take a second and join us. Click Subscribe. Click the bell. Follow on the ‘gram
and on the tweeter. OK, let’s kick into it. You’re not made up
of ones and zeros. But you could argue ones and
zeros and twos and threes, right, ATCG? Our DNA contains three
billion individual letters, the representations of
those four chemicals. If you split those into
groups of 240 characters, that equals 145 days of
tweeting every second, 12 and 1/2 million
tweets per person. There are billions and billions
of combinations of these base pairs. A study of exome
variability found thousands of different
variables were possible. And in fact, there
are many billions of humans that
have ever existed. And so far, we don’t seem to
have seen the same one twice. So DNA is the information
code that gives us life. But what if it could hold
the content of our life too? Images, videos, books, words,
memories, calendars, you know, everything– if
we can encode data into DNA, which we
can, then we could use DNA to store information
just like computers. We can do this. It’s been covered
a lot, even by me. But as powerful as
the four base DNA is– I mean, look, it made this,
after all, you know, and you– it goes deeper. What if four letters
was just the beginning? Why not 6 or 8 or 10 or 12? In the mid 1980s,
some scientists started to think about
DNA in this exact way. And just recently,
they finally managed to make their invention work. That’s right. They invented new DNA. The result of more than
30 years of research is a new eight-base DNA. They’ve got the GA. They’ve got the TC. But they’ve also got two
synthetic base pairs, BS and PZ. Funnily enough, when
you put it all together, it still makes a double helix. This new base pair set
mimics the structure of the natural bases. And this eight-base DNA
functions just the same, just with more code. They call it hachimoji,
Japanese hach for eight and imoji for letter. Hachimoji behaves the
same as regular DNA. They even created other
companion molecules, RNA that would
work alongside it– they used a virus to make that– some synthetic enzymes
created using bacteria. And they put together genes
out of those base pairs. Synthetic proteins were
created to then work with the synthetic
genes that they created using the synthetic base pairs. Then they needed to read and
write from the new hachimoji. So the RNA that was created
from a virus was used. And they put into a
test tube the enzymes and the RNA and the hachimoji as
well as a fluorescent molecule that when bonded with
the RNA would glow green. When they mixed them all in
the test tube, it glowed. And they knew it worked,
an eight-base DNA set, double the number of
base pairs in human and everyone’s DNA,
everything’s DNA. Now, I don’t know if you’re as
excited as I am, because you’re probably hearing that word
synthetic and thinking, oh, well, that’s not real. Synthetic doesn’t mean not real. It just means that they didn’t
evolve naturally on Earth. What if these hachimoji
evolved elsewhere? Because we’ve just proved
through this research that they could work. They could create
life codes somehow, somewhere in the universe. Aliens potentially could
have evolved with eight DNA bases, four base pairs. And that DNA could
encode way more information in the
same space and still potentially create life. NASA is super interested
in this possibility. But before we get
off track too much, the main thing that this
is going to be used for is to store data. Hard drives will
eventually fail. CDs actually rot after
a long enough time. Solid state drives have
limited numbers of read-writes. But DNA, a study from 2015 found
that if left in these Svalbara Seed Vault at 10
degrees Celsius, it could last 2,000
years with data it. I’ve been there. IDC, a marketing firm, worked
with Seagate, a data storage company, and they determined
that by 2025, humans are going to have 175 zetabytes
of data that we’ve created and have to store. According to New
Scientist, one gram of DNA could hold 455 exabytes. Now, to put that in perspective,
a billion gigabytes, one exabyte. 1,000 exabytes, one
zetabyte, and humans, again, will have created
175 zetabytes by 2025. So I went online, and I was
looking for how much DNA is in our bodies. And someone actually
did the math. About 250 grams is the estimate. So if a gram of DNA can
hold huge amounts of data, then our bodies, or the
amount of DNA in our bodies, could outstrip the data
needs of our whole planet for sure, especially if we
make it out of eight bases. So just to kind of recap– a team of scientists
spent decades creating new eight-base DNA. This new DNA works just like
ours, and it mimics life. But it isn’t alive. We can’t use it to
make life, but we can use it to learn about
ourselves, to better understand how our own programming works,
use it for more data storage, use it to understand
possible life in the rest of the universe. Wow, that’s amazing. So next time you’re staring
at your body thinking about how much data
your fingertip might be able to store,
if you’re like me, or if you’re even
more imaginative, picturing your DNA
with eight bases, just think about it for a bit. Because it’s possible. And now you know. This episode is brought to
you all by Curiosity Stream, a subscription
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