Tech Today: Synthetic DNA Diagnoses COVID, Cancer

Tech Today: Synthetic DNA Diagnoses COVID, Cancer

NASA-funded molecular research enables better disease detection

At first glance, the search for life beyond Earth might not seem related to human illness, but to biochemist Steven Benner, the connection is clear.

“In diagnostics for an infectious disease, you’re looking for alien life inside of a patient,” said Benner, who has spent nearly two decades conducting NASA-funded research on what alien life might look like at the molecular level.

“It’s actually a bit easier to build a diagnostics assay to detect COVID than to build an agnostic life finder to search for Martian DNA, whose structure would be unknown,” he said.

Benner is the co-founder and CEO of Firebird Diagnostics LLC, based in Alachua, Florida, which sells synthetic DNA and molecule packages to researchers, who use them to develop tools to detect and treat ailments like cancer, hepatitis, and HIV. The company also sold COVID tests during the pandemic.

Benner holds that while some of what we know about biochemistry on Earth may be universal, most is Earth-specific. He and his partners developed DNA-like molecular systems with six and eight nucleotides, or building blocks, based on research funded partly by NASA’s Astrobiology Program. These systems add to the four building blocks in Earth-based DNA an additional two or four synthetic nucleotides.

Mary Voytek, head of the Astrobiology Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said Benner’s work shows there are alternatives to Earth-based biological molecules, “This helps us understand what else is possible and may be found in life beyond Earth.”

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