DNA nucleic acids store genetic information, while the protein amino acids provide code for translating this information into structure and function. They together provide the two basic codes that underlie the whole of life.

Researchers have now found a way for these two coding languages to be combined into one “bilingual” molecule.

The American Chemical Society’s Journal published the research by Emory University chemists. The synthesized molecule could become a powerful tool for diagnostics, gene therapy, and cell delivery applications.

Nucleic acids store information in a “nucleotide” four-base “alphabet.” Peptides and proteins are made of 20 different amino acids with a completely different alphabet.

“The language of nucleic acid is easy to speak but somewhat limited,” Heemstra says. “While the language of protein is extremely complex and difficult to predict, they have both produced exquisite properties for billions of years.”

The properties of either nucleic acids or amino acids were previously synthesized molecules. In a single molecule, the Emory researchers wanted to use the power of both information systems.

The challenge was enormous, based on organic chemistry, molecular and cellular biology, material science and analytical chemistry techniques. The scientists constructed a protein scaffold and then added functional nucleotide and amino acid fragments to this structure.

Colin Swenson, first author of the paper and a graduate student at Heemstra’s lab, says, “The two different codes had to be synthesized separately and then brought together into the scaffold.”

The resulting bilingual molecule is stable, consists of cheap and widely available materials and offers its users the potential for diverse biomedical and nanotechnological applications.

“It’s like a programmable, universal adapter that puts together proteins and nucleic acids,” says Heemstra. “We hope other researchers will be inspired to think of various ways to apply it.”


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