Saturday, January 26, 2008

Synthetic life followup

I want to return to the topic of synthetic life and the Venter Institute's recent accomplishment of synthesizing a half-million base pair bacterial genome from scratch. Thinking and reading more about it I realized that my first reaction to this was quite simple - "Cool.". Not "Oh my Todd! What have they done now?" or even "Wow, that is absolutely amazing - I can't believe they figured out how to do that!". Just "Cool." Even back when the Venter team succeeded in inserting a whole genome into a DNA-less cell, I wasn't particularly blown away. I mentioned then that this sort of thing seemed like the next logical step in the world of biotech and genetic engineering. We've known for some time how to genetically modify organisms. In fact no one is really phased by this idea any more - at least from a feasible scientific and technological standpoint. Sure, people argue over whether or not genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are good for us or for the environment, but no one blinks an eye at our ability to create GMOs (hell, you can buy a kit and do it yourself).

So isn't it inevitable that we advance from inserting foreign genes into a cell to inserting whole genomes? Conceptually, it's just a matter of scale, right? So, that's what Venter's team did this past summer - they brought the field of genetic engineering to the next level by upping the scale. Was it easy? Hell no. Technically, the scientists had to overcome numerous barriers. They spent countless hours wracking their collective brains, performing failed experiments, and redesigning procedures. But in the end, it was never really a question of if they could do it, but how.

Same thing this time around. We've known how to build short stretches of DNA from constituent nucleotides for decades - we know the (bio)chemistry of it. But until now, we could only manage to make relatively small pieces of DNA - the longest synthetic strand of DNA had been approximately 30,000 base pairs long. So, Venter's team took us to the next level once again by upping the scale. And again, it was no small feat. Just an inevitable one. As Carl Zimmer has written, the advances we are seeing in synthetic genetics are largely technical, not conceptual.

So, no, I wasn't terribly surprised to hear about the synthesis of a 580,000 base pair bacterial genome. Impressed and excited, yes, but not surprised. And I won't be surprised when this genome is used to "boot up" a cell. Nor when the Venter squad whittles this genome down to the bare minimum that will drive a living cell - the so-called "Minimum Genome Project". Nor when GSOs - "genetically synthesized organisms" - replace GMOs in our regular lexicon. There's nothing Copernican here, the conceptual revolution is long past. DNA, nucleotides, nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon, electrons and protons. At this point it's all just different scales of biochemistry.


Kevin Zelnio said...

I largely agree. My reaction wasn't extreme either but I think its because its been built up for several. There was press about it for a long time. Like you said, its inevitable.

But I'm scared of GSOs!

Jim Lemire said...

"But I'm scared of GSOs!"

Well, sure, right now they're the thing of science fiction - e.g. "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes". But then so was in vitro fertilization and GMOs. Will GSO technology cause some problems? Absolutely. Could it be used for nefarious purposes? Yes. But the same argument can be made for just about any scientific advance, right? And think of the good things that can come of it.

And think what we could learn about the evolutionary process through experimentation with synthetic life. We could have the ultimate controlled evolution experiment.

The only problem I see is that scientists that study synthetic life (Syntheticists?) might be viewed as cooler than deep-sea biologists.