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Potentially historic news, awaiting replication by the scientific community, from famous biochemistry entrepreneur J. Craig Venter (Wikipedia). From the abstract, published today in AAAS Science, of what may someday prove to be one of the most important papers in ths history of biochemistry:

We report the design, synthesis, and assembly of the 1.08-Mbp Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome starting from digitized genome sequence information and its transplantation into a Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cell to create new Mycoplasma mycoides cells that are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The only DNA in the cells is the designed synthetic DNA sequence, including “watermark” sequences and other designed gene deletions and polymorphisms, and mutations acquired during the building process. The new cells have expected phenotypic properties and are capable of continuous self-replication.

The original cell was not completely “synthetic,” but its DNA was. So this is not quite the ultimate realization of the project of organic chemistry, i.e. to create living matter from completely lifeless matter, but it is a giant step in that direction. [via Boing Boing]

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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Comments

  1. Dave says:

    It looks like Venter is currently working at or slightly below the “machine language” stage of technology.

    How long before we advance to complete object-oriented desktop development?

    Venter states (see the full-text article), “Our ability to rapidly digitize genomic information has increased by more than eight orders of magnitude over the past 25 years.”

    Pretty close to Moore’s Law, with a bit over doubling, every year…

  2. k4gdw says:

    What happens if these artificial cells escape the lab? These guys spend all their time wondering if they CAN do something and they never stop to if they SHOULD. What possible benefit can the creation of these cells have to society and more importantly how could any such benefit possibly outweigh the risks?

    1. Artful Dodger says:

      I agree that caution is in order, extreme caution, but I disagree with the notion that no possible benefit that could outweigh the risks. Think of the implication for cancer research alone. We needed to be careful, there needs to be public regulation.

      1. k4gdw says:

        It seems to me that the only benefit to cancer research that could come from this is they can now grow artificial tumors to test drugs on. But since they’re artificial I don’t really see that much benefit because they’ll very likely not respond even remotely similar to the way a real tumor would. Perhaps if these cells could do more than just replicate themselves like possibly be programmed with an attack mechanism to target tumors. But wait, that would make them even MORE dangerous. If they can attack tumors they could just as easily attack healthy tissue. Anything like this should have a built in, fool proof, way to shut them down long before they ever even considered teaching them to replicate.

    2. Geekman says:

      “What happens if these artificial cells escape the lab?”
      Um ? Evolution happen ?
      you don’t expect an cobbled together artificial DNA to outperform what nature built in the last 4 billion years, do you ?

      As for the possible benefit : a better understanding of how DNA actually works is a no brainer. Another one would be to use the cell’s low power efficienty to synthetize medecine ( and way less polluting too ).

  3. Alan says:

    The hype machine is in high gear over this paper, but people really need to ease up a bit. For starters, this isn’t the first replicating life from artificial DNA. Eckard Wimmer did that in 2002, by building a synthetic poliovirus genome and demonstrating that it was infectious.

    The work Venter’s group has just reported is an impressive technical achievement. They synthesized a copy of an existing microbe’s genome, and put it into a closely related microbe whose genome had been disrupted. The prosthetic genome replicated and the organism survived. That’s undeniably cool. However, it is neither world-changing nor life-threatening.

    Existing molecular biology techniques already allow much more substantial tinkering with an organism’s genome at far lower cost. While whole-genome synthesis might have some specific uses in the future, it’s hardly going to supplant the earlier methods. As for what happens if these artificial cells escape the lab, I’d place very long odds on their surviving much past the sink trap.

  4. k4gdw says:

    is that this guy just might have created a microbe that no living creature on the planet has ever been exposed to and has no genetic memory of. That means there likely wouldn’t be any immune response to an infection by this microbe. Is the new microbe similar enough to an existing microbe that the body would know how to react to it? Maybe, maybe not. Is the microbe dangerous? Probably not. Benign microbes vastly outnumber the dangerous ones. However, history shows us what happens when a population is exposed to a new infectious agent. What happened when Europeans brought their foreign germs to North America? The native population was decimated because they had little if any natural defenses against the new diseases.

    Heck, even supposedly benign bugs can turn dangerous. When I was in high school back in the 80′s I did a science fair project to demonstrate how exposure to different metals can impact the colonial growth of e-coli bacteria. (Google “oligodynamic action”) To get the bacteria I made a phone call and ordered a small supply that arrived in the US mail with no warnings about safe handling procedures. Luckily my family doctor was consulting with me on the project and gave me access to an autoclave to sterilize everything after the project was finished. Fast forward to current times and it seems that we hear in the news about a new outbreak of e-coli food poisoning on a regular basis. If e-coli were considered dangerous back in the 80′s I seriously doubt a teenager would have been able to order the bacteria and supplies necessary to culture them so easily.

    How can this guy even be sure what DNA he actually put into the microbe? In the article it mentions mutations that happened while the DNA was being synthesized. How can anyone really predict what this microbe will develop into when it was mutating before it even started self replication?

    Anyway, for good or ill, it’s done now. The proverbial cat is out of the bag.

    1. Alan says:

      On your first concern, that’s not how the immune system works. We do carry a kinda-sorta “genetic memory” called innate immunity, which targets broad classes of ancient pathogens such as bacteria. For everything else, we rely on adaptive immunity, which is capable of responding to absolutely anything that exists or that might ever exist. If chemists synthesize a large molecule that has never appeared in the history of the Earth – something many chemists do on a regular basis – they can nonetheless be sure that every human (and mouse and chicken) on the planet is capable of generating antibodies against that molecule. The experiment has been done many, many times, and it always works.

      Furthermore, we’ve been genetically engineering organisms for decades, and we’re all still here. Even folks bent on using microbes as weapons invariably turn to naturally existing pathogens, because they’re so much deadlier than anything anyone has been able to develop in a lab. Pathogens and immune systems have been fighting this war for 4 billion years, after all, so it’s highly unlikely that humans will come along and develop some wholly new strategy. Synthetic life forms pose no unique risk.

      As for E. coli, you need to understand that there are different strains of bacteria. Had you not known about mail-order bacterial cultures, you could have isolated E. coli by wiping a sterile swab across your rear end. It’s there, and it’s usually harmless. There are, however, strains of E. coli that can cause serious illness (O157:H7 is a particularly bad actor). But it’s not the same bug. As an analogy, a well-behaved dachshund and a fight-trained rottweiler are both Canis familiaris, but one licks your face and the other rips it off.

  5. Kevrust says:

    I want to agree with Alan on this. I work as a microbiologist, and I’d like to reassure people that while this is a remarkable technological project, Ventner really has not created anything “new”. He took existing things, copied some of them (using advanced technology in this case), and put them together in a new frame. The best way I can explain this is that is as though he has taken the works of Shakespeare, photocopied them, and put the photocopied pages in a cover from “War and Peace”. Now it says “War and Peace” but reads “Shakespeare”. Big deal.

    I do share the concern that reckless recombination of genes or organisms could result in a novel pathogen. Yet, this is essentially what is going on with the influenza virus every year. But almost a generation has passed since we started recombining genes in novel host cells, and guess what? No one has created a “superbug”. It turns out that microorganisms share and swap genetic material at a rate much higher than the scientist can accomplish, even with today’s technology. The “bugs” have been doing this for millenia, and we’re still here. In fact, the same arguments against recombinant DNA technology have been going on since 1980 at the least. (I remember!)

    I regard Dr. Ventner as a remarkably talented headline grabber. What he has accomplished in this case is not particularly interesting from a scientific aspect (it would have been more interesting if the recombinant organism had been DIFFERENT than the template organism in some significant respect). However this work shows that direct engineering of organisms is possible (adding TOTALLY novel genes-not found in any extant organism- to an organism), and someone will likely be doing it soon. I hope that whoever he or she is, they work cautiously and with the welfare of the rest of the planet in mind.

    1. Kevrust says:

      Venter, not Ventner!

    2. Kevrust says:

      Venter, not Ventner!

  6. septentriones says:

    …scientists modify whatever they create to destroy themselves when exposed to one or more chemical. That way, they can test them to see if they die as commanded and then release them without fear. I agree that unplanned artificial life can be dangerous but humans will be able to create biological tools that can attack tumors or other health issues, create antibodies for those with immunitary issues and more. Maybe I’m just optimistic but I think this will help people to survive even longer.