UK Medical Research Council scientists create world’s first synthetic enzymes

Scientists at the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC) have created the world’s first enzymes made from artificial genetic material, which are capable of triggering chemical reactions in the laboratory.

Synthetic enzymes are made from molecules that do not occur anywhere in nature.

The research provides new views into the origins of life and could provide a starting point for an entirely new generation of drugs and diagnostics.

The findings are based on the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology’s work, which showed the creation of synthetic molecules called ‘XNAs’ that can store and pass on genetic information, in a similar way to DNA.

By using XNAs as building blocks, the team created ‘XNAzymes’, which power simple reactions, such as cutting up or stitching together small chunks of RNA, similar to naturally occurring enzymes.

MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology Dr Philipp Holliger said: “All life on earth depends on a series of chemical reactions, from digesting food to making DNA in our cells.

“Many of these reactions are too sluggish to happen at ambient temperatures and pressures, and require enzymes to kick-start or ‘catalyse’ the process.

“Until recently, it was thought that DNA and RNA were the only molecules that could store genetic information and together with proteins, the only biomolecules able to form enzymes.

“Our work suggests that, in principle, there are a number of possible alternatives to nature’s molecules that will support the catalytic processes required for life.

“Life’s ‘choice’ of RNA and DNA may just be an accident of prehistoric chemistry.”

Both DNA and RNA store all of the genetic information and pass it on to future generations.

St John’s College post-doctoral research associate Dr Alex Taylor said: “The creation of synthetic DNA, and now enzymes, from building blocks that don’t exist in nature also raises the possibility that, if there is life on other planets, it may have sprung up from an entirely different set of molecules, and it widens the possible number of planets that might be able to host life.”