DNA Has Four Bases. Some Viruses Swap in a Fifth

Dozens of viruses don’t use the same four nucleotide bases found in all other life. New work shows how this is possible—and perhaps more common than we think.

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. “It’s hard to imagine something more fundamental,” said Floyd Romesberg, a synthetic biologist at the pharmaceutical company Sanofi.

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

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