Eric Anslyn is a chemistry professor at UT Austin. In LAB, he focuses on the topic of molecular complexity.

Chemistry professor Eric Anslyn is the recipient of the James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, sponsored by the ACS Northeastern Section. Anslyn uses a variety of techniques to study natural receptors and molecular recognition. He has created rapid screening assays to "read" and fingerprint the makeup and characteristics of substances from nerve agents to wines to carcinogenic toxins. He is currently focused on studying kinase activity and screening kinase inhibitors, which are being developed to target cancer, and is beginning work on reversible covalent bonding, a new technique to create compounds that can change their arrangement based on external conditions for a wide range of applications including materials and synthetic receptors.

Recipients will be honored at an awards ceremony during the ACS National Meeting in Orlando, Florida in April 2019.

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A DNA double helix built from eight hachimoji building blocks: G (green), A (red), C (dark blue), T (yellow), B (cyan), S (pink), P (purple) and Z (orange). The first four building blocks are found in human DNA; the last four are synthetic. Each strand of the double helix has the sequence CTTAPCBTASGZTAAG. Image credit: Millie Georgiadis/ Indiana University School of Medicine.

A team of synthetic biologists led by Steven Benner at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution—and including Andrew Ellington at The University of Texas at Austin—have synthesized a new kind of DNA that uses eight building blocks instead of the four found in all earthly life. Reporting today in the journal Science, the researchers suggest the new eight-letter DNA could find applications in medicine and biological computing. The finding also has implications for how scientists think about life elsewhere in the universe.

"Four-letter DNA was given to us by evolution," said Ellington. "The fact that we can now, as humans, go beyond nature, that is huge."

The new DNA doubles the four building blocks found in natural DNA, making a new 8-letter synthetic genetic system called "hachimoji" DNA (from Japanese "hachi" meaning "eight," and "moji" meaning "letter," as in "emoji").

One possible application might be in a new biological information storage system that would store data at much higher densities than current silicon-based systems.

Benner's company, Firebird Biomolecular Sciences, is working to commercialize hachimoji for medical applications including disease diagnosis and the development of new drugs.

Ellington's team at UT Austin found a mutant enzyme that could better copy hachimoji DNA into hachimoji RNA. The transfer of this level of information from one biopolymer to another is unprecedented in the field of synthetic biology. This is analogous to the way that earthly life "transcribes" DNA into RNA as part of the process of making proteins from the information stored in DNA. Next, Ellington's team plans to develop an enzyme for replicating strands of hachimoji DNA, what is known as a DNA polymerase.

The research also has implications for understanding life elsewhere in the universe. Eight-letter DNA shares many of the same characteristics that make ordinary four-letter DNA suitable for storing a genetic code for life. For example, each possible pair of letters has the same shape and size as every other pair, making them interchangeable. If a single letter in the code can be easily swapped out with another—in other words, if genes can easily mutate—then a species can evolve over time, a hallmark of life. The researchers suggest that traits like this mean such an expanded form of DNA could form the basis of life on other planets.

This work was supported by NASA and the Templeton World Charity Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

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Launching alongside LAB is NfoLD, a multi-institution research coordination network focused on focused on developing technologies and techniques for life detection on other worlds.  Following on decades of research supporting and expanding our understanding of habitability, the limits of life, and habitable environments on other planets and moons, NfoLD will open the frontiers of research by catalyzing and connecting the life detection community, laying the groundwork for cutting edge studies, and allowing the quest for alien life to venture into unexplored territories.

NfoLD’s mission is to engage an international group of life detection scientists and engineers, following on the success of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) model.  NfoLD’s goals are to:

  • collaborate to investigate life detection strategies, including biosignature creation and preservation

  • facilitate work between scientists and engineers to develop technologies and tools to look for extraterrestrial life

  • actively and inclusively engage the scientific community to foster collaboration on projects

  • cultivate interdisciplinary and multi-organizational initiatives

  • organize a reference sample set

  • coordinate community engagement with the ladder of life detection, incorporating the ideas of agnostic biosignatures and combining different features of assessment and confidence

  • work with missions during the design phase to incorporate realistic life detection goals and objectives

  • promote cross-cutting training and educational activities

NfoLD will gather investigators of multiple backgrounds and perspectives, beginning with core teams based at NASA Ames Research Center, Georgetown University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology.  Soon, the consortium will expand to include new partners among NASA-funded research groups, thereby extending its expertise and capabilities.

Although NfoLD is led by researchers whose funding comes from NASA, NfoLD is a community initiative.

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