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Researchers at Delft University of Technology, in collaboration with colleagues at the Autonomous University of Madrid, have created an artificial DNA blueprint for the replication of DNA in a cell-like structure. Creating such a complex biological module is an important step towards an even more ambitious goal: building a complete and functioning synthetic cell from the bottom up.
Copying DNA is an essential function of living cells. It allows for cell division and propagation of genetic information to the offspring. The mechanism underlying DNA replication consists of three important steps. First, DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA. Messenger RNA is then translated into proteins—the workhorses of the cell that carry out many of its vital functions. The job of some of these proteins, finally, is to perform the last step in the cycle: the replication (or copying) of DNA. After a cell has replicated its DNA, it can divide into two daughter cells, each containing a copy of the original genetic material.
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Researchers had already realized all of the separate steps mentioned above. Japanese scientists, for instance, created a minimal, stand-alone system for messenger RNA and protein synthesis by taking the relevant components from E. coli and tweaking them. But no one had yet been able to combine this system with autonomous DNA replication. "We wanted to close the cycle and be the first to reconstruct the entire flow of genetic information inside a cell-like structure called a liposome," said group leader Christophe Danelon.
Combining the Japanese system with a module for DNA replication proved difficult. "We tried a few approaches, but none seemed to work convincingly," said Danelon. Then, Ph.D. student Pauline van Nies came up with the idea to use the DNA replication machinery of a virus called Φ29. "Viruses are very intriguing from a molecular biology point of view," said...
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