All life on Earth rests on the same foundation: a four-letter genetic alphabet spelling out a repertoire of three-letter words that specify 20 amino acids. These basic building blocks — the components of DNA and their molecular interpreters — lie at biology’s core. Yet life’s foundational biochemistry can be full of surprises. A few decades ago, researchers found viruses that had swapped one of the four bases in their DNA for a novel fifth one. Now, in a trio of papers, three teams have identified dozens of other viruses that make this substitution, as well as the mechanisms that make it possible.

Key Takeaways:

  • The basic substance of all life on Earth boils neatly down to a genetic alphabet soup comprised of 20 amino acids.
  • Scientists have always assumed that the basic four-letter genetic code for earthly organisms was inviolate. However, new research upends this assumption.
  • Several scientific teams have discovered dozens of viruses that swap out one of their DNA molecules for a totally new one and how it is accomplished.

“Here was this wonderful validation that right under our noses, nature has been expanding”

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