The Amazing Mirroring Of Life: Will It Save Us Or Kill Us (Or Not Even Work)?

Check out this freaky/philosophical tidbit from Wired: Scientists led by Dmitri Sasselov, including Nobel Prize-winner Jack Szostak, are at work trying to reverse the chirality, or handedness, of DNA and RNA, in order to produce mirror life. What does that mean?

Well, it means:

If it worked, those new cells… could answer one of the deepest questions about the origin of life, not just here on Earth but everywhere in the universe. They might also open up new avenues of discovery in materials science, fuel synthesis, and pharmaceutical research. On the down side, though, mirror life wouldn’t have any predators or diseases to limit its reproduction. They would have to keep an eye on that…

All of us earthlings, from algae to elephants, have proteins made of left-handed amino acids and a genome of right-handed nucleic acids…

Theoretically, a cell could be based on “wrong-handed” molecules. Its biochemistry would work just like ours—DNA to RNA to proteins—but it would be completely incompatible with earthly life, its chiral twin. And now, thanks to recent advances in genomics, cell membrane science, and synthetic biology, an ambitious researcher could go beyond theory and build it from the ground up. The tools are here (well, almost here) to make mirror life from scratch…

Some of the most valuable drugs are actually tiny proteins that include wrong-handed amino acids—like the immunosuppressant cyclosporine. To manufacture it, pharmaceutical companies have to rely on an inefficient and expensive fungus. A hacked ribosome modified to handle both normal and mirror amino acids could crank out the stuff on an industrial scale. And why stop at what we already know? Being able to produce unnatural proteins cheaply means you could synthesize billions of them and then test them in parallel for antitumor and antibiotic properties. Once you got a hit, Szostak says, you could generate trillions of variations on that molecule, “figure out which are the good ones, and evolve them.”

Church thinks even bigger. A manufacturing ribosome would be great, but a fully domesticated mirror cell—able to synthesize more-complicated stuff—would change everything. “All production will be biological,” he says. In that science fiction future, vats of virus-proof mirror cells could pump out biofuel, lay down nano-size organic circuitry, and even extrude organic cement foundations for skyscrapers…

On the other hand, if mirror cells somehow evolved—or were engineered—to consume normal fats, sugars, and proteins, we might have a problem. If a mirror cell got the right set of isomerases to break down these nutrients, that would be a mess. Mirror cells would slowly convert edible matter into more of themselves. Anything that ate them wouldn’t be able to digest the mirrored molecules—they’d pass right through predators’ guts. And as the mirror cells excreted waste and died, the accumulating material would be like a self-generating oil spill with nothing to clean it up…

There you have it! SCIENCE! Building skyscrapers to order with microbes, only to watch helplessly as they learn from their masters how to digest our doughnuts and pecan logs, leading to hilarious hijinks, wacky antics… and a deadly ice age. Oh well, can’t win em all.

Chirality:

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