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Life from scratch
June 28, 2007 5:28 PM   Subscribe

Dr. Craig Venter, known for his role as a pioneer in the human genome project, has taken a major step towards creating life from scratch: transplanting the entire genome from one bacterium cell to another. Commence the ethics wars.
posted by charmston (32 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
The human gnome project - where scientists are attempting to map the genetic makeup of Swiss Bankers.

My apologies for the typo; it's obviously supposed to read "human genome project". Damned be spell check!
posted by charmston at 5:32 PM on June 28, 2007


the human gnome told me to burn things (literally/not)
posted by mr.marx at 5:37 PM on June 28, 2007


[de-gnomified that]
posted by cortex at 5:44 PM on June 28, 2007


This human gnome project ... does it involve underpants?
posted by kaemaril at 5:45 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


There's ethics involved here? Where?
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:49 PM on June 28, 2007


Now that we've gotten the gnome jokes out of our system, let's discuss what's really important.

PUTTIN' ON DA RIIIIIIIIIIIITZ!!!!!
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:50 PM on June 28, 2007


I understand their reasons for patenting their procedures and recognize their right to do it, but where would their work be if the first guy to use a centrifuge to separate a sample had patented that? Or what if ever micro pipette had to be licensed at exorbitant sums? disappointing :T
posted by nihlton at 5:51 PM on June 28, 2007


Cool, but moving a genome from one mycoplasma species to another hardly strikes me as crossing any great ethical boundaries.

The cool thing is that the M. capricolum genome completely disappears as they select for the M. mycoides genome. I'd like to know how that works and how efficient the takeover process is.
posted by pombe at 5:53 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


"But Dr Venter says he is doing nothing that other institutes do not already do."

This is the response to their practice of patenting their techniques. With a strong moral stance like that, I'm sure that they've given weighty thought to other ethical and practical problems.
posted by oddman at 5:55 PM on June 28, 2007


It's true, they really aren't doing anything new. It's a proof-of-principle for a principle that nobody really disputes. It seems to be getting a lot of coverage in the popular press, though, and spun as some kind of "creation of a new organism" that crosses ethical boundaries.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:03 PM on June 28, 2007


I'm sorry, but that 'human gnome' typo in the original version of the post was too good to correct.
posted by motty at 6:07 PM on June 28, 2007


Yeah, I think there's a difference between an ethical misstep and an action that might pave the way for ethical missteps in the future. This is the latter, but I think the possibility of 'designer microbes' is a great idea. The things they could do are not going to happen with non-biological technology any time soon.

Also...Dr. Venter looks like a gnome. Typo? More like Freudian slip.
posted by invitapriore at 6:33 PM on June 28, 2007


"Some fear the technology could be used to create biological weapons or simply that something unforeseen may emerge from the laboratory"

First of all, are these Some reading too much Mary Shelly? But seriously, are they unaware that good and evil are human attributes? This is such an idiotic stance; why not just stop all scientific progress at the risk that some ass makes a weapon out of it.... lasers, anybody?
posted by wumpus at 6:35 PM on June 28, 2007


I'm sure that Dr. Francis Collins will have an opinion.
posted by Mblue at 6:44 PM on June 28, 2007


We're in for some interesting times, as it becomes more and more plausible to concoct one's own micro-organisms at home. You can already do some pretty amazing things with home-lab biotechnology. And there is always someone crazy enough to do something crazy.

Shudder. Superbug, anyone?
posted by five fresh fish at 6:55 PM on June 28, 2007


Norton will protect us, as long as we don't mind waiting a ridiculously long time for them to.
posted by wumpus at 7:05 PM on June 28, 2007


Step #1 insinuate patentable technology Step#2 ??? Step#3 PROFIT!!!
posted by Earthskyearthsky...ouch at 7:11 PM on June 28, 2007


Is no one interested in the actual article ?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:04 PM on June 28, 2007


Nah, let's talk about the newly-confirmed evils of circumcision!
posted by greatgefilte at 9:08 PM on June 28, 2007


Man, Craig Ventor must have a very good publicist. I applaud his efforts to determine the minimal possible genome for life (it's an intriguing scientific question), but I fail to see the commercial implications. We can manipulate the genetics of bacteria (and mammals) to such a degree nowadays that I don't see why his system is better than the methods currently in use.

The patenting concerns aren't anything that haven't been heard before. Yes, it can restrict scientific advances. No, that doesn't mean we should outlaw it*

*except for patenting of genes, which is fucking ridiculous
posted by kisch mokusch at 9:39 PM on June 28, 2007


My wiggitty wack library doesn't give access to current issues of Science, which sucks because this looks interesting.

What did they do? Make a BAC and a nuclease that wouldn't digest it and transfect them both into the cell? Anybody know? Science doesn't usually publish the non-awesome.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:58 PM on June 28, 2007


but I fail to see the commercial implications

It's the same thing Venter does every night, Pinky.

TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD
posted by fusinski at 10:24 PM on June 28, 2007


Well, this is actually not all that exciting. Bacteria have much simpler genomes. Rather then chromosomes in a nucleus, all you have is a ring of DNA floating in the cytoplasm, so transplantation would be much, much simpler then in a Eukaryote like a human, animal, or plant type cell.
posted by delmoi at 10:31 PM on June 28, 2007


.The patenting concerns aren't anything that haven't been heard before. Yes, it can restrict scientific advances. No, that doesn't mean we should outlaw it*

The question isn't whether or not we should "outlaw" it but whether we should "law" it in the purpose. The entire point of a patent system is to foster scientific advances, if a class of patent is actually restricting them, then of course we should grant patents of that class.
posted by delmoi at 10:39 PM on June 28, 2007


If anybody with access would be so kind as to email me the pdf, I would gladly send that person a mixCD of Hindi film music.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:39 PM on June 28, 2007


(er, rather then purpose I meant "first place". I don't know how I managed to screw that up)
posted by delmoi at 10:40 PM on June 28, 2007


My wiggitty wack library doesn't give access to current issues of Science, which sucks because this looks interesting.

I can't seem to access it either, which is odd since I'm at University, and I can usually get Science.

Science doesn't usually publish the non-awesome.

Ha! Thanks for the laugh.

so transplantation would be much, much simpler then in a Eukaryote like a human, animal, or plant type cell.

Well, no, actually.
I can't get the paper, so I don't know how they did it. But the difficulty with bacteria is their size. We can already transfer the nucleus of one eukaryotic cell to another (see microinjection), have been able to do that for 40 years or so. But a bacteria, that's too small.

The question isn't whether or not we should "outlaw" it but whether we should "law" it in the purpose. The entire point of a patent system is to foster scientific advances, if a class of patent is actually restricting them, then of course we should grant patents of that class.


Sorry, I was being flippant. To clarify: There are times when the debate about what should and shouldn't be patented needs to be raised. This is not one of those times. And I only meant that patenting restricts science in an absolutist sense. If Joe researcher is not allowed to use a particular technique/product/procedure without paying a fee (that Joe researcher can't afford), then Joe researcher can't do the experiments. For the most part, that's just too damn bad for Joe researcher, because there are other scientists that can and do pay. I'm not discouraging the idea of patenting. I'm just saying that, in the purist sense, patenting restricts science. The advantages of being allowed to own your work tend* to outweigh them.

*Although there are exceptions.
posted by kisch mokusch at 11:47 PM on June 28, 2007


The Future, Part One:

"Mommy, why do I keep having the urge to smell other peoples' butts?"

"Because your genome is part dog, Billy. Now stop humping the chair leg and get washed for dinner."
posted by humblepigeon at 12:37 AM on June 29, 2007


Wow, some of you are pretty jaded. While there is not a revolutionary new idea behind this research, this is a significant advancement in technique. While people have surely envisioned this before, no one has successfully done it, and I imagine others have tried. In science, that's what counts.

That said, the paper is really dull. Almost the whole thing seems to be materials and methods. I'm surprised Science let them publish this as a research article rather than a short report.

If anybody with access would be so kind as to email me the pdf, I would gladly send that person a mixCD of Hindi film music.

I'll send it to you only if you promise not to send me a mix CD of Hindi film music.
posted by grouse at 2:47 AM on June 29, 2007


To anyone who can't get access to the paper, and was wondering what the techique was:

They purified chromosomal DNA from one Mycobacterium strain that contained a tet marker, and then transformed a different Mycobacterium strain with that purified DNA (they made chemically competent cells with PEG). They then verified by PCR that the resulting tet-resistant transformants had the transplanted chromosome, but not the original one. They also did blue/white screening because one of the chromosomes had lacZ and one didn't.

That's it. Proof of principle - it is possible to transform an organism with the genome of another, and then select for transformants that have lost the original genome but kept the new one - but not a principle that anyone would really suspect is incorrect.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:17 AM on June 29, 2007 [2 favorites]


It is an interesting technique but they haven't come up with the mechanism for it. With traditional bacterial transformation techniques we know how and why it happens (bacteria sex, bacteria treated to have holes in them - holes that close upon heat shock, &c) but here they wave their hands on how one cell-wall-lacking mycobacterium decides to dump it's chromosome and pick up another one that's floating around...

As for the utility of discovering what a "minimal genome" is, aside from being in a better position to determine exactly what "life" is, it would also be a tool to determine molecular interactions in isolation.

Many commonly studied proteins and enzymes do more than just one thing. Having a minimal genome allows researchers to put in exactly the minimal components of their pathway into this engineered organism to verify that it is, indeed, all that's required for that pathway to work and not have to worry about interactions that aren't involved in the pathway of interest.

Alternatively, there are important metabolic pathways where not all of the components are known. By plugging in all of the known proteins and discovering that it's insufficient for the pathway to work, researchers could plug in libraries of uncharacterized proteins to figure out what else was needed in the pathway.

Anyone say... drug discovery?
posted by porpoise at 3:16 PM on June 29, 2007


porpoise: it's not hand-waving so much as it's implied, because this is just a method/result paper (and not a super good one at that). There doesn't need to be any "dumping" of DNA. It's very clear what's going on here: by using a traditional transformation method (PEG), you're allowing large DNA molecules to pass from outside of the cell to inside. Then, via normal mechanisms, the cell divides to yield two daughter cells, one with the original chromosome, and one with the transformed chromosome. Selection on tetracycline yields only the positive transformants containing the new chromosome.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:23 PM on June 29, 2007


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