The genetic code is the metabolic instructions by which the genetic information in the DNA is translated into a protein. The fact that almost all organisms use the same code is prime evidence that all life is related in its evolutionary past. The code is considered to be "conserved" and "universal". Of course, the concept of universality may be challenged by exobiology's explorations of Mars, Europa, and Titan, but the conservative nature of the genetic code, with the exception of a few Archaebacteria, has always been a cornerstone of biological science.

But the reality of course is that the Genetic Code is like the COBOL language of computer science. The Genetic Code is old (over 3.5 billion years). Of course life on this planet is not going to update the genetic code anytime soon - it is thriving using the old code, but evolution is a weird thing, if something better comes along, and a mechanism to adapt to that change exists, the out with the old and in with the new. Until recently it appeared to be metabolically impossible to "update" the code. But one species, Homo sapiens, may have discovered a way to fast-track the process.

The basic principle of the genetic code is that the information coming from the DNA, in the form of messenger RNA, is "read" by a ribosome three units (also called a codon) at a time. Each codon codes for an amino acid, the building blocks of a protein. Proteins are the workhorses of the cell - everything depends on them. In other words, genes code for proteins. While we have had the ability to change genes for some time, using recombinant DNA technology and genetic engineering, until recently we were always confined to the use of the same old programming language.

Earlier this year, independent teams of researchers at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge have found ways to alter not only the genetic code, but also the cellular machinery responsible for deciphering the code - the ribosome. (see Synthetic biology: Rewriting the code for life by Linda Geddes, 2008). This process is called synthetic biology, and due to the efforts of biotech giants such as Craig Venter, this is no longer science fiction. We now have at our fingertips the technology to create new forms of life that are designed for specific missions and environments.

These advances open up unbelievable possibilities, and the potential for unimaginable nightmares. It may soon be possible to manufacture proteins that were not possible from a biochemical perspective just a few years ago. This could create new drugs that could finally eradicate some of our specie's biggest problems, such as cancer and HIV. It could also allow us to develop plants that tolerate salt water, or grow on toxic waste. A new programming language means endless possibilities. It also could spell our demise as a species. After all, the evolutionary history of life on this planet tells us that if something better comes along, the old is replaced... even if it is us. Let us not be so egocentric to think that we are special from an evolutionary perspective. Unless of course, you believe that our purpose on Earth is to generate our own successors.