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Synthetic Cell Celebration

Have you been wondering what the hub-bub is about regarding Synthetic Life lately?

Maybe you think it might be the latest Sim Life video game or perhaps the latest blow-up doll technology.

Could it be that the military’s super-advanced robots have finally crossed the threshold to sentience?

The answer is no to all of these (doesn’t that robot jelly look cool though?)

So what is all the hubub about then?

On May 20th, biologist and entrepeneur, Craig Venter announced that he and his team had created the first synthetic cell ushering in as he says: “a new phase of biology: designing and synthesizing life”

If the name Venter sounds familiar, he’s the guy who worked with a private company to map the human genome. He finally shared that historic announcement back in 2000 with the official Genome Project people when they both pretty much finished the rough-draft at the same time.

So here’s what he and his team have done now:
They took a bacterial cell (M.Capricolum) and hoovered out it’s DNA and put it aside.
They then used a sequencing machine which held the full digital sequence of another bacteria (M.Myocoides) to create snippets of the DNA (from ordinary chemicals). The machine couldn’t do it all at once so it basically made 1000 pieces of dna each about 1000 base-pairs long. These tiny pieces were then inserted into e.coli to make bigger pieces. Finally, yeast cells were used to assemble these big pieces into a single united bacterial genome.

Now this synthetic bare genome was identical to regular M. Myocoides bacteria except for the following:

  • It had so-called watermarks encoded in it……quotes like “See things not as they are, but as they might be,” by physicist Oppenheimer
  • 10 potentially pathogenic genes were removed……that was nice of them
  • Replication errors were inadvertently introduced but fortunately they were as harmless as they were inevitable.
  • You also may have seen pictures of blue cells; that was from the lacZ gene they added which turns the cell blue so they know it’s working.
  • The other notable difference was that the entire genome was made by a computer and not a mommy bacteria.

So what was the final step? This synthetic 1 million base-pair genome was place inside that first bacterial cell with no DNA.

So now we have the cell and cytoplasm of one species of bacteria
with the slightly altered, synthetic DNA copy of another bacteria species floating around inside it.

So what happens now? They attach electrodes and raise the cell during an electrical storm? I don’t think it was that dramatic. The cellular machinary in the cytoplasm reads this foreign dna and starts making proteins, metabolizing, and reproducing as laid out in the synthesized dna.

So…How important is this? Is this synthetic life or not?
Caltech geneticist, David Baltimore said: Venter had “not created life, only mimicked it.”

Geneticist George Church : “Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the same as understanding the language.”

This is all true but it’s a bit of a semantic game.

One point that should not be overlooked is that these scientists started with a dead cell. Having all your dna removed is pretty much as dead as you can be. They then took another piece of non-living matter, put the two together and produced something that was alive. This isn’t life from scratch but it’s a helluva day at work.

This reminds me of another historic achievement, Wöhler’s synthesis of urea. This was the first time that an organic substance was created using purely inorganic substances. This had previously been thought impossible and helped with the break from a magical vitalistic view of life to a more modern conception.

If not now then I think it’s just a matter of time before fully synthetic cells are created. From a narrow view, this achievement can be seen as an incremental step. But it’s an incremental step for a scientist and ultimately, a giant leap for um…..well you know what I mean.

Fully synthetic or not, incremental or not…this is ultimately a proof of concept that life can be designed and synthesized.

The options that open up to us explode when you’re not confined to tweaking a pre-existing genome. Imagine being able to quickly and easily design a genome and then mass-produce designer bacteria to…

  • create cars that run on garbage
  • excrete bio fuels
  • clean-up the environment…how great would it be if we had designer oil-eating bacteria right now.

We are mostly bacteria ourselves, we could design organisms to help us digest food, prevent infection, cure diseases.
This is just scratching the surface. Imagine JJ Thomson discovering the electron in 1897 and trying to imagine what electrons do for us today.

If you want a high level sequence of events, I see tweaking bacteria conventionally really paying off first. Giving them slightly different metabolisms to produce certain beneficial chemicals or ingest other harmful ones. Venter himself has catalogued millions of novel bacterial genes that could be used as a plug-in toolkit for geneticists.

After that I think we’ll see bacteria made entirely from scratch Venter-style with genes from all over the bacterial and animal kingdoms interacting in ways nature never would in a billion more years of evolution. We’ll also see at this point completely man-designed genes functioning in ways that causes nature to give it a double-take.

The next obvious step here will be to create artificial multi-cellular organisms. Things get real fuzzy here but the potential seems pretty incredible to me. This could run the gamut from artificial insects to artificial pets to artificial sentient beings. The word “artificial” here seems inappropriately denigrating  when discussing advances such as these. They will be as real and just as worthy of the moniker “Life” as any conventionally evolved creature.

You wanna go even further in the future?  I see nanotechnology eventually moving beyond what known biological components could do. Squishy biology is great only for a very narrow range of environments. Nanotech will give us the toolset to create complex machines and ultimately lifeforms far hardier than anything else with capabilities we can barely imagine.

Perhaps even deeper into the future, our nanotech descendants will find old-school biological cells and wonder how such simple fragile life could have evolved.

4 comments to Synthetic Cell Celebration

  • Drum Billet

    What about the potential military applications?

    Could they create biological weapons that only kill people with certain traits?

    I know it’s cynical, but it’s quite a scary thought.

  • Nevar

    I wish I could be “nanorized” before my time to expire arrives; live on as a machine.

  • eean

    @Drum not really, I mean so we can sequence whatever we want and start growing a cell that follows the generated DNA.

    But we still don’t really “speak” DNA. Our understanding is still essentially copying-and-pasting existing genes. And actually we could already mix and match genes in bacteria.

    Right now mostly this seems interesting from a research perspective. It can answer “I wonder what happens to this protein if we change this and that base pair”. So it will cool in 10 years when your average university lab will maybe be able to work with this technology.

  • scienceandreason

    I applaud the effort to better understand the mechanisms of life, and I’d really like to see lab-generated self-replicating life demonstrated someday (just to piss off the religious crowd), but all this DNA/nano engineering talk sometimes gives me the willies. Thankfully I’ll be stardust long before this brave new world, with a distinct dark underbelly, manifests itself in a significant way.

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