Cambridge University scientists have created the first living organism with fully synthetic DNA radically altered from its original state. The strain of E coli was given a smaller set of genetic instructions than its counterparts, proving life can continue with such a restricted code. The discovery could potentially lead to the creation of organisms used solely for drug creation, or to add new features including resistance to viruses.

The bacterium’s artificial genome contains four million pairs of bases. The team rewrote three codons in the genome, turning them into other codons which do the same job. They also removed some superfluous codons. After this was done the genome was chemically synthesised and then added to E coli, replacing the natural genome.

Because the DNA of theses “designer lifeforms” is so radically different to normal, viruses will have greater difficulty in spreading within them. This is important in labs, where bacteria used to make insulin or other compounds for medicine can be destroyed by viruses.

Beyond this, future synthetically-coded organisms could be used to continuously create designer proteins and drugs.