May 21, 2010: This is one of those days when one story is likely to dominate the science news. It will also be writ large in the world’s news. Craig Venter, the name has to come first, and his research team has claimed creation of the first synthetic life.
It should also be a good time to draw a deep breath, assemble some patience, and wait for the dust to settle. There is very likely to be two kinds of news on this story: What Venter and team actually accomplished, and what the world makes of it. The former will probably be less (and more) than most people think it is. The latter will be in the larger banner headlines, mostly with worries and condemnations.
That said, this is big news, even if it turns out to be just the first movements of a baby step. In the just released article in Science Express, Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome the scientists describe the step by step process of creating a bacterial chromosome, the successful transfer of that chromosome into another bacterium where it replaced the native DNA, and how – with that synthetic genome – the bacterium began replicating its new DNA and creating new proteins. In short, it was alive.
Now even to a casual reader, the idea of putting the synthetic DNA into another (already existing) organism – sort of like changing the blueprints for a work in progress – isn’t the same as building life from scratch. There are a lot of organic shortcuts involved. Still, it is equally obvious that building DNA synthetically that actually works is no small accomplishment.
This project began around 1995, when Venter and other colleagues began looking for the bacterium with the smallest genome, which they found in Mycoplasma genitalium, a microbe with only 500 genes. Theoretically fewer genes would make it easier to synthesize the DNA, but it took more than a decade. By 2007 the Venter team could demonstrate that it was possible to move the (natural) DNA of one bacterium into another bacterium. In 2008 they announced the creation of an artificial “watermark,” a genetic code embedded in the DNA that would instantly identify anything created with that DNA as synthetic.
Unfortunately, the bacterium M. genitalium was such a slow breeder that the scientists were forced to abandon it as their target. They switched to M. mycoides a much faster growing bacterium. By mid-2009 they were able to demonstrate the transfer of DNA from M. mycoides to another bacterium, M. capricolum, a close relative. The next step was to build synthetic DNA.
Yeast was used as the assembly ground for the new DNA, where the 10,000 genetic sequences were stitched together – mostly one by one – until a complete genome was finished. They transplanted this synthetic DNA into M. capricolum. Nothing happened. It was probably a ‘bug’ in the code, a lot like software. Finding the mistake took three months.
More months passed while they tried many genomic transplants. Finally, in early 2010, they found a genome combination that worked: M. capricolum was making proteins as if it was M. mycoides. One cell was transformed into another.
You can call that creating life, or not. It’s arguable – and it will be argued, no doubt about it. At the very least, the part of the argument about whether this is scientifically solid ‘creation of life’ or some kind of preliminary or intermediary step could be interesting and possibly bear fruit. Other kinds of arguments…they are also important, but will probably produce far more heat than light. It will be interesting to see what cultural impact this has.
In a piece of world-class timing, the horror movie Splice will be released June 4. I’m using the word ‘horror movie’ instead of science fiction movie, because while what is presented in the movie is still science fiction – with today’s news, it’s not so much science fiction any more. The movie features a couple of good actors in Adrien Brody (The Pianist) and Sarah Polley (Away from Her). Word on the street is that it’s a pretty good movie. If so, it will find itself in a maelstrom of interest. Since it presents the work of geneticists going amok (the geneticists and their creation), it will be instantly seen as presaging the dangers of doing the kind of work the Venter team – and many other scientists – have been pursuing for at least a decade. I love it when art reflects life and life reflects art…in more ways than one.
More fundamentally, perhaps, will be the impact synthetic life – not just this first step, but the implications of what can be done in the future – will have on religious beliefs. It also has almost immediate practical implications for ethics, and no doubt government regulation. Beyond that, as the technology ramps up…what a phrase, creating life forms…as the technology ramps up, this will have economic and legal ramifications as well. Venter’s group is already applying for patents.