The New Prometheus

Ryan Mehl ’96 in his laboratory at Franklin and Marshall College (Photo courtesy Franklin and Marshall press office)

Ryan Mehl ’96, an assistant professor of chemistry at Franklin and Marshall College, made headlines in January with the publication of an article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. He was first author of the report on an experiment conducted at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, called “Generation of a Bacterium with a 21 Amino Acid Genetic Code.”

This is a deceptive title for what Life Sciences Network, a science news service, calls “the world’s first truly artificial organism.” Though “artificial” overstates the case, according to Ryan, there’s some truth to the hype.

And it all started here at Moravian, where Dan Libby and David Langhus awakened Ryan’s interest in laboratory research. “Dan, especially, is the reason I’m here,” Ryan says. “He was the first person to put me into a laand let me get excited about working there.”

Here’s how Ryan explains the excitement over the newly abled bacterium. All living organisms are made up of protein building blocks composed of 20 amino acids. Ryan and six researchers, working from an idea initiated 15 years ago by Peter Schultz of the Scripps Institute, altered the DNA of an organism so it can make and use another.

The team used the same “machinery” that forms the 20 natural amino acids . Moreover, since the ability to make the 21st amino acid is achieved by altering the DNA, the bacterium not only is a self-sufficient life-form but also can pass this trait along to its progeny. “Our goal has been to expand the organism genetically rather than to create a new one,” Ryan says.

The components for making and using the 21st amino acid were combined in an E. coli bacterium but genetically were copied and altered from other organisms, including several kinds of bacteria and a gene found in the sperm whale. “Significant alteration was necessary,” Ryan says, “in order to get the new parts to work together but not get tangled up with the 20 other amino acids that occur naturally.”

The uses of the altered bacterium range from theoretical to practical. It will help researchers understand the way protein building blocks work, answering fundamental questions: How did life become based on 20 amino acids? Is 20 perfect? Is 21 better?

Practically, the new chemical allows laboratory scientists to do far more with proteins than they can with the natural 20. “In the research labs at Scripps, they already have moved it into yeast ... and it won’t be very long before we can move it from yeast to mice. New and improved proteins are on their way for use as catalysts in making drugs or to be used as drugs themselves,” Ryan explains.
Ryan earned his Ph.D. from Cornell University, then took a post-doctoral fellowship at the Scripps Institute. He joined the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College last fall.

He’s married to Aubrey Lynn Hicks ’95, an English major who has worked at several publishing houses and now is concentrating on writing fiction. They share two cats, Iris and Snowdrop, and a puppy, Bishop, whose genetic mix is open to question, though he combines the amino acids of a boxer and a Labrador.

Ryan’s mother, Judy, was assistant director of publications at Moravian and now is publications director at East Stroudsburg University. His brother, Graham ’95, is an engineer with Lockheed Martin in Philadelphia.

February 25, 2003

The New Prometheus:
Ryan Mehl '96 helps in discovery of new protein building block that may be the first step in artificially created self-sustaining life.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers:
President Rokke appointed to U.S. Institute of Peace.

Sam I Am and Vox Dei:
Metropolitan Opera bass Samuel Ramey sings on campus.

Hair Today:
Comenius statue wears a white wig of snow.

Retiring Dispositions:
Doris and David Schattschneider stay busy as emeriti.

Media Matters:
Moravian events on TV and in newspapers.

Another connection between math trio (inCommon profile 2/11/03).

Belated Congratulations:
Winners of the McCall and Mirra staff awards.
Faculty/staff/student accomplishments. Includes Anniversary Waltz, service anniversaries for winter 2003.