Mehl ’96 in his laboratory at Franklin and Marshall
College (Photo courtesy Franklin and Marshall press
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
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
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.