By Jimmy Rogers
Contributing Writer, [GAS]
If 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!