Science Is Sexy: What’s The Big Deal About Synthetic Life?


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By Jimmy Rogers
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Synthetic LifeIf you follow the science (and probably Sci-Fi) news at all, you’ve probably heard about Craig Venter’s successful creation of the first synthetic organism.  Just so we’re all on the same page, the new organism is much like any other bacterium, except it has a custom-made genome with not only genes, but also encoded signatures, choice James Joyce quotes, and a secret web address!  I’ll leave you to discover more details on your own if you like (here’s the publication in Science and the full genome), but that essentially sums it up.  The next question you should ask is… so what?

If you were to ask this question of a scientist in the field of genetics or microbiology, they would have a hard time answering the question.  Since we’re all geeks here, let me give you a computer analogy.  Think of explaining the importance of an integrated circuit to someone who had never seen a computer before.  On one level you might be able to explain the value of miniaturization or even personal computers, but something way down the line, such as the internet, would be very hard to get across.  This discovery is much the same… the implications are so huge that it’s hard for even working experts to envision all the possibilities.

That being said, there is a better way to “think with” Venter’s work.  Instead of trying to imagine all of the potential products, think of synthetic organisms as a method.  What Venter’s team has done is opened up a whole new world of potential experiments for other scientists.

Before now, if you wanted a large number of genes added or removed from a bacteria, you would either have to introduce a big chunk of foreign DNA to the cell called a plasmid (which would be fairly unstable) or work very hard to mutate the organism’s genome directly.  Both of these processes might accomplish what you need done, but the synthetic genome method could save you a lot of headaches.  It took years of work and $40 million to create the first synthetic genome, but if Craig Venter’s previous exploits (inventing technologies to help finish the Human Genome Project two years ahead of schedule), we can expect to see a supporting industrial complex reasonably soon.

*Blue colonies (top) and electron micrograph of a cluster of cells (bottom) from JCVI and UCSD, repectively, via Science.

 

Another thing to think about is the organism itself.  Mycoplasma itself is a very small organism with a very small genome.  The researchers chose it as the model for this experiment because it is one of the simplest free-living organisms.  Again, we can think of this organism’s miraculous manipulation as a method.  Given a little time, other, more relevant organisms (E. coli, B. subtilis, and various pathogens of interest) will probably have their own adapted versions of this system.  Instead of spending weeks generating complex knock-outs (the term for organisms who have had gene(s) removed), a researcher might be able to send away for a fully customized strain with lots of helpful genetic tools and markers already built into its genome.

One last point that a number of observers have brought up is the potential danger of this technology.  While potential bioweapons live and grow all around us (Anthrax and Tularemia’s causative agents are native to the entire Northern hemisphere), the idea of custom-made viruses and microbes still inspires a new degree of fear.  Once these techniques reach a level of automation that requires only a working knowledge of genomics, “designer bugs” will definitely be in the reach of well-funded corporations and rogue nations alike.  We are entering into a new generation of ubiquitous biotechnologies that will need to be regulated and generally kept under a close eye.  As with any technology, it is not evil unto itself, but there is always a potential for wrong-doing to occur.

I’d love to field some questions about the new technology if you have them.  Don’t be afraid to ask…I’ll try to answer as many as I can for at least a few months after this article goes to print.  Just share your thoughts in the comments below or bug me on Twitter!





33 Responses to Science Is Sexy: What’s The Big Deal About Synthetic Life?

  1. Great article!
    Will this be able to cure diseases, viruses, cancer and maybe even the common cold? or have i just got the wrong end of the stick?
    still, it is very interesting!

    Alex

    • Once again, I’ll advise not thinking about this as a “thing” and thinking about it as a method. All of those things really require individual solutions. This tool will help us get to solutions like that someday (hopefully). Also, just as a sidenote, some things we may NEVER cure because it’s either impractical or maybe even not desirable.

      • I agree that “some things we may NEVER cure because it’s either impractical or maybe even not desirable.” We humans have a tendency to thinks that if only we could eliminate all diseseas the world would be a better place.

  2. Great article!

    Will this be able to cure diseases, viruses, cancer and maybe even the common cold? or have i just got the wrong end of the stick?

    still, it is very interesting!

    Alex

    • Once again, I'll advise not thinking about this as a "thing" and thinking about it as a method. All of those things really require individual solutions. This tool will help us get to solutions like that someday (hopefully). Also, just as a sidenote, some things we may NEVER cure because it's either impractical or maybe even not desirable.

      • I agree that "some things we may NEVER cure because it’s either impractical or maybe even not desirable." We humans have a tendency to thinks that if only we could eliminate all diseseas the world would be a better place.

  3. Revisiting corn for a minute, as a geeky historian, I know that one of the theories to explain the demise of the Mayans is that they were too good at selecting their corn. Allow me to explain:

    When Mayans selected which corn they would plant each year, they picked grain from stalks and ears which had produced high quantities of corn, meaning they could plant less and yield more.

    However, this backfired when they eventually were using all corn from only one strain. A strain that happened to be particularly susceptible to a certain disease which attacks corn.

    My point here is that, with genetically modified corn and with possible applications of this new method, we could be locking ourselves into the same trap as the Mayans. Heck, the disease that attacks all corn could even be one of those potential "wrong-doing" applications of the method.

    As to the extinction of bananas, this is actually a great example of how Humankind rather screwed ourselves over in mucking with "nature." See this article from BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2664373

    But don't get me wrong, I think this technology has amazing potential. I just feel (cynically) that it will ultimately do more harm than good. What's the point in being able to program/create an artificial bacteria to eat certain types of cancer cells (or however they eventually go about using this method for diseases which can be cured) when, at the same time, someone's using the same method to create a new disease which effects all children of a certain mitochondrial type and destroys a third of a generation? Responsibility isn't something the Human Race has really proven ourselves capable of.

    • I think you're giving this new method a TAD more credit than it deserves. While some of your points are valid ones, THIS method doesn't generally give us that much more or less ability to accomplish those things. The corn thing, for instance, was the result of a poor understanding of selection. Modern farmers and scientists are aware of how corn populations work and already work to prevent genetically modified crops from overwhelming wild-type crops. I don't see how Venter's new method will necessarily have any effect on that practice.

      Also, just to clarify, these are "synthetic bacteria" not "artificial bactieria." The former are bacteria that are no different from those in nature, but we have hand-stamped their genomes. Artificial bacteria would probably be more like what people now call nanobots…organisms that we specifically designed and manufactured from the ground up. I'm sure there will be some blurring of the lines in the years to come, but we're not quite there yet.

      Thanks for the lengthy comment though!

  4. I am not less about intentionol wrong doing than I am about careless mistakes and short sighted thinking. We are not gods and like children lack the ability to understand/know the long term consequences of choices. Who’s to say that a gene that vastly improves the yield of corn crops mutates into something that creates a virus that wipes out all chickens on the planet?

    • Hey Khurt,

      Well first off, be aware that corn that mutates into a virus that kills all the chickens is NOT something that is going to happen….

      But the point is valid. I think the best thing we can do is proceed slowly so we have time to see things popping up. With BT corn for instance (genetically modified to resist corn borers), we have been testing it repeatedly and utilizing specialized practices to prevent environmental impact. Also, remember that this is a tool…it will ALLOW us to do new and cool things, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to be modifying all the E.coli in the world and then replacing the current strain.

  5. I am not less about intentionol wrong doing than I am about careless mistakes and short sighted thinking. We are not gods and like children lack the ability to understand/know the long term consequences of choices. Who's to say that a gene that vastly improves the yield of corn crops mutates into something that creates a virus that wipes out all chickens on the planet?

    • Hey Khurt,

      Well first off, be aware that corn that mutates into a virus that kills all the chickens is NOT something that is going to happen….

      But the point is valid. I think the best thing we can do is proceed slowly so we have time to see things popping up. With BT corn for instance (genetically modified to resist corn borers), we have been testing it repeatedly and utilizing specialized practices to prevent environmental impact. Also, remember that this is a tool…it will ALLOW us to do new and cool things, but it doesn't mean we're going to be modifying all the E.coli in the world and then replacing the current strain.

  6. Is not a modification of an existing DNA; is a brand new one.

    While on one side is really a breakthrough and an opportunity, I fear that we are going a step beyond what nature intended to have.

    There are so many variables and factors to consider, that I wonder how we can manage them.

    • Well I must somewhat disagree. While there have been a lot of modifications to the DNA, the genome they used is still pretty much the same genome found in nature. Essentially the “success” isn’t that they hand-wrote their own genome (which is still something that is a long way off), it’s that they chemically synthesized the whole sequence and then inserted that.

      I don’t think “going beyond what nature intended” is an argument in and of itself. I mean we have dogs…which we selectively bred for thousands of years. We essentially “created” the modern banana. There might be other reasons that these things are good/bad, but must we anthropomorphize nature?

      • As soon as i hear that old nonsense of "going beyond what nature intended" or, an even bigger "favorite" that we are "playing God" I just wanna grind my teeth. It is our NATURE to be "unnatural!" Stop playing God by building houses! Go sleep under a bush as nature intended! And don't even THINK about going near a computer so you can share your foolish babble with the rest of the "unnatural" world! SHEESH! People make me sooooo grumpy!

  7. Is not a modification of an existing DNA; is a brand new one.

    While on one side is really a breakthrough and an opportunity, I fear that we are going a step beyond what nature intended to have.

    There are so many variables and factors to consider, that I wonder how we can manage them.

    • Well I must somewhat disagree. While there have been a lot of modifications to the DNA, the genome they used is still pretty much the same genome found in nature. Essentially the "success" isn't that they hand-wrote their own genome (which is still something that is a long way off), it's that they chemically synthesized the whole sequence and then inserted that.

      I don't think "going beyond what nature intended" is an argument in and of itself. I mean we have dogs…which we selectively bred for thousands of years. We essentially "created" the modern banana. There might be other reasons that these things are good/bad, but must we anthropomorphize nature?

  8. Does this new synthetic microorganism work as a plasmid, which is inserted into other bacterial cells? Also anything that I’ve read so far do not make reference about the two new artificial genetic bases so I was just wondering if using the two bases besides A, T, G, C would also be able to make synthetic life, or are they only used to generate unnatural amino acid.

    • Actually I don’t think there are any artificial bases that we use…there are certainly other ones, but I think you’re thinking of alternative ribosomes/codons, which CAN code for alternative amino acids. That technology is not being used here. It’s more useful for creating specific biochemicals that are otherwise hard to synthesize.

      The “synthetic” element of this organism is that we “synthesized” the genome base by base with a machine.

      Oh and it’s not a plasmid (I mean I can do that :P) it’s a whole GENOME, which is what makes this so impressive. The same team figured out whole-genome transfer a little while ago, so this is just an application of that technology with the synthesized sequence.

  9. Does this new synthetic microorganism work as a plasmid, which is inserted into other bacterial cells? Also anything that I've read so far do not make reference about the two new artificial genetic bases so I was just wondering if using the two bases besides A, T, G, C would also be able to make synthetic life, or are they only used to generate unnatural amino acid.

    • Actually I don't think there are any artificial bases that we use…there are certainly other ones, but I think you're thinking of alternative ribosomes/codons, which CAN code for alternative amino acids. That technology is not being used here. It's more useful for creating specific biochemicals that are otherwise hard to synthesize.

      The "synthetic" element of this organism is that we "synthesized" the genome base by base with a machine.

      Oh and it's not a plasmid (I mean I can do that :P) it's a whole GENOME, which is what makes this so impressive. The same team figured out whole-genome transfer a little while ago, so this is just an application of that technology with the synthesized sequence.

  10. Is this a synthetic “blueprint” inserted into an already-functioning cell, or is it a collection of entirely synthesized/nonliving pieces assembled into something that functions as a living thing?

    The second possibility is slightly brain-shattering to me, my first question is definitely not “Why should I care?” haha…

    • Essentially it is the former example. They took a cell with a genome already in it…hand-wrote and synthesized a new genome…and put that new genome into the cell in such a way that the old genome was degraded. I don’t know much about the process, but that last part was essentially the “big news” a year or two ago, so I know that’s what they did.

      The other alternative is something other people ARE working on, but it’s a lot harder to just invent something as stable as a product of evolution.

  11. It’s definitely a step in an interesting direction. I wonder how long it will be before similar techniques are developed for genomes of eukaryotic organisms–or at least chloroplasts and mitochondria.

    • Definitely the right thought about that. While chloroplasts and mitochondria are relatively simple (though I honestly don’t know TOO much about their structure), full-on eukaroytes are probably a ways away. Not only do they have a lot LARGER genomes, but those genomes are packed away in a much more complex way. Think histone proteins and the like. It seems like science will probably go the regulation route when it comes to eukaryotes (though maybe we’ll figure it out with yeast, who knows).

  12. Is this a synthetic "blueprint" inserted into an already-functioning cell, or is it a collection of entirely synthesized/nonliving pieces assembled into something that functions as a living thing?

    The second possibility is slightly brain-shattering to me, my first question is definitely not "Why should I care?" haha…

    • Essentially it is the former example. They took a cell with a genome already in it…hand-wrote and synthesized a new genome…and put that new genome into the cell in such a way that the old genome was degraded. I don't know much about the process, but that last part was essentially the "big news" a year or two ago, so I know that's what they did.

      The other alternative is something other people ARE working on, but it's a lot harder to just invent something as stable as a product of evolution.

  13. It's definitely a step in an interesting direction. I wonder how long it will be before similar techniques are developed for genomes of eukaryotic organisms–or at least chloroplasts and mitochondria.

    • Definitely the right thought about that. While chloroplasts and mitochondria are relatively simple (though I honestly don't know TOO much about their structure), full-on eukaroytes are probably a ways away. Not only do they have a lot LARGER genomes, but those genomes are packed away in a much more complex way. Think histone proteins and the like. It seems like science will probably go the regulation route when it comes to eukaryotes (though maybe we'll figure it out with yeast, who knows).

  14. Revisiting corn for a minute, as a geeky historian, I know that one of the theories to explain the demise of the Mayans is that they were too good at selecting their corn. Allow me to explain:

    When Mayans selected which corn they would plant each year, they picked grain from stalks and ears which had produced high quantities of corn, meaning they could plant less and yield more.

    However, this backfired when they eventually were using all corn from only one strain. A strain that happened to be particularly susceptible to a certain disease which attacks corn.

    My point here is that, with genetically modified corn and with possible applications of this new method, we could be locking ourselves into the same trap as the Mayans. Heck, the disease that attacks all corn could even be one of those potential "wrong-doing" applications of the method.

    As to the extinction of bananas, this is actually a great example of how Humankind rather screwed ourselves over in mucking with "nature." See this article from BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2664373

    But don't get me wrong, I think this technology has amazing potential. I just feel (cynically) that it will ultimately do more harm than good. What's the point in being able to program/create an artificial bacteria to eat certain types of cancer cells (or however they eventually go about using this method for diseases which can be cured) when, at the same time, someone's using the same method to create a new disease which effects all children of a certain mitochondrial type and destroys a third of a generation? Responsibility isn't something the Human Race has really proven ourselves capable of.

    • I think you’re giving this new method a TAD more credit than it deserves. While some of your points are valid ones, THIS method doesn’t generally give us that much more or less ability to accomplish those things. The corn thing, for instance, was the result of a poor understanding of selection. Modern farmers and scientists are aware of how corn populations work and already work to prevent genetically modified crops from overwhelming wild-type crops. I don’t see how Venter’s new method will necessarily have any effect on that practice.

      Also, just to clarify, these are “synthetic bacteria” not “artificial bactieria.” The former are bacteria that are no different from those in nature, but we have hand-stamped their genomes. Artificial bacteria would probably be more like what people now call nanobots…organisms that we specifically designed and manufactured from the ground up. I’m sure there will be some blurring of the lines in the years to come, but we’re not quite there yet.

      Thanks for the lengthy comment though!