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On the brink of artificial life
October 6, 2007 10:46 PM   Subscribe

Venter made an artificial chromosome and may have already created artificial life in his lab. Is it a solution for global warming, or a plot for world domination? Anyway, it's a lot to think about and discuss.
posted by strangeguitars (35 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
the dna sequence is based on the bacterium mycoplasma genitalium...

oh swell, new and improved crotch rot.
posted by bruce at 10:54 PM on October 6, 2007


Very cool, even if it is like writing a novel using the copy and paste functions.
posted by 517 at 11:11 PM on October 6, 2007


Is it a solution for global warming, or a plot for world domination?

This is America, dammit! Why can't it be both?

Anyway, good article. From the sound of it, though, it's not exactly "artificial life". More like "artificial copy of previously evolved DNA". Still quite an accomplishment, though.

I'll be much more interested when they can assemble cellular organelles from scratch. That's when we need to be on the lookout for replicants.
posted by Avenger at 11:16 PM on October 6, 2007


One thing to keep in mind is that Prokaryotes, like bacteria have their DNA just floating around in the cell, unlike Eukaryotes (like us) who have their DNA in a nucleus. There is a huge order of complexity difference, and you couldn't just throw DNA in a cell with a Eukaryotes like you might be able to with a Prokaryote (I'm sure in practice it's much more complicated)

Very cool, even if it is like writing a novel using the copy and paste functions.

It's really nothing like that at all. It's more like finding the simplest car out there, and then removing different pieces until you found the bare minimum needed to drive. Then, going back to a lab and fabricating those pieces from scratch, and then driving it. Oh, and you lived in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where all the cars that existed were built thousands of years ago, and no living person had ever managed to create one from scratch, only from re-using spare parts from other cars.
posted by delmoi at 11:21 PM on October 6, 2007 [10 favorites]


I can't help but notice this is a press release about an announcement that is supposed to come out at an unspecified time, "within the next few weeks". So this isn't an announcement? I also note that there is no mention of peer-reviewed paper submission or anything of the sort.

Craig Ventner has pushed the modern field of genetics forward, no doubt. And I have a lot of respect for Hamilton Smith. I suspect there really is some ground breaking new work here, but I wouldn't be surprised if calling it "artificial life" is more like creative license.

The interplay of ego and science has always been there. Craig Ventner just happens to do it much more publicly, so I'm careful to take it all with a grain of salt. Guess I'm an old fuddy duddy that likes published results first and press releases second.

The bio-ethicists points about social structures not being prepared to debate the ethics and implications of the work is spot on though. I don't know how far Ventner has really gotten, but its really only a matter of time before designer life forms (however basic) can be built from the ground up and we really aren't prepared to talk about the pros and cons, much like getting caught flat footed with GMO's. Here's hoping this kick starts some serious thinking.
posted by afflatus at 11:23 PM on October 6, 2007


Yes, this was damn interesting news, which could come as early as Monday. That the DNA sequence is based on mycoplasma genitalium is really a letdown, LOL.

Image of the soon to be synthetic creature.

Some pictures of what this particular bacterium looks like. Image of the gene expression.

"Mycoplasma genitalium is a small parasitic bacterium which lives on the ciliated epithelial cells of the primate genital and respiratory tracts. M. genitalium is the smallest known free-living bacterium, and the second-smallest bacterium after the recently-discovered endosymbiont Carsonella ruddii. Until the discovery of Nanoarchaeum in 2002, M. genitalium was also considered to be the organism with the smallest genome (aside from viruses).

Mycoplasma genitalium was originally isolated in 1980 from urethral specimens of two male patients with non-gonococcal urethritis. Infection by M. genitalium seems fairly common, can be transmitted between partners during unprotected sexual intercourse".

"In October of 2007, a team of scientists headed by controversial DNA researcher Craig Venter and Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith announced that they plan to create the first artificial life form in history by creating a synthetic chromosome which they plan to inject into the M. genitalium bacterium, potentially resulting in an artificial species dubbed Mycoplasma laboratorium."

"Venter hopes to be able to use the bacterium to manufacture hydrogen and biofuels, and also to absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases."

Well, if the STD creature grows legs and breaks free of the lab, at least we can zap it by hosing it down with Gyne-Lotrimin and antibiotics.
posted by nickyskye at 11:29 PM on October 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


It is this result, well more than the human genome or his fantastic dragnet oceanic virus sequencing, that made me realize that future generations will actually know the name of Craig Venter. Not so much that this is itself a big deal, but that his goals and resources are such that big things will come out of the Craig Venter Institute. It really makes one wonder about the future viability of private versus public science, and dream of a day where basic science is funded by people with more money and ambition than the NSF.
posted by Schismatic at 11:30 PM on October 6, 2007


Because the world needs more STD's
posted by empath at 11:33 PM on October 6, 2007


The STD clone just isn't going to look as cute as the cloned kitten.
posted by nickyskye at 11:34 PM on October 6, 2007


He has already lead the private effort to sequence the human genome, changed one bacteria into another by transplanting the entire genome, sequenced his own genome, sequenced his poodles genome, gone on a world tour in his boat, sampling and sequencing the water, and founded his own genome research center, amongst other things.

I'd say artificial life isn't such a stretch (in fact I am guessing it is just an extension of the bacteria transplantation method).
posted by scodger at 11:48 PM on October 6, 2007


Hmm, Carsonellia Ruddii has only 159,000 base pairs in it's genome. FAIL. (of course, it looks like it needs to be inside another cell to live, but whatever)
posted by delmoi at 11:57 PM on October 6, 2007


The first artificial life form is an STD. What does that say about humanity?
posted by strangeguitars at 12:25 AM on October 7, 2007


It really makes one wonder about the future viability of private versus public science, and dream of a day where basic science is funded by people with more money and ambition than the NSF.

There's little profit in funding basic research, but there's plenty of profit in using already-funded basic research.

This is the hybrid model used by the US government and US-based healthcare and pharmaceutical corporations, which are generally the most profitable legal businesses in the country.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:28 AM on October 7, 2007


Maybe I'm a sick, evil freak but I can't wait for cheap ubiquitous genetic engineering. Artificial life, cloned humans, human-animal hybrids, bring it on.
posted by Justinian at 12:32 AM on October 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Please no cat-human hybrids, though, I couldn't live with the thought of furries finally getting their wish.
posted by Justinian at 12:32 AM on October 7, 2007


Synthetic life would be incredibly exciting, but I would take this with a very large grain of salt.

Venter is apparently under the impression that bacteria are homogeneous bags consisting of a chromosome and a few other bits. Other scientists in the field find that view very amusing. Even the smallest bacteria are highly structured in ways that we're only just beginning to discover. The spatial organization of the components inside is critical important at all times of the cell cycle.

That means there's going to a problem: Let's say you construct a cell membrane and stick a chromosome in, how do you boot it up and get the cell ticking? There's a great deal of associated machinery, proteins, RNA and so on, that you need to have in the right concentrations and probably even in the right spatial *positions*, for the cell to start working. You probably can't just synthesize a chromosome, stick it in a membrane, add a few nucleotides and watch it go. It won't boot!

Life's had 3 billion years to get as complex as it is, and even cells with small chromosomes are masterpieces of subtlety. Of those 360 genes in Venter's tiny bug, we still don't know what a good third of them even do!!!
posted by Bletch at 12:35 AM on October 7, 2007


And yes, I realize this isn't what Venter's actually trying to do, but this is what "artificial life" would be. The difference between what Venter's doing and real synthetic life is at least several decades, and maybe much longer.
posted by Bletch at 12:45 AM on October 7, 2007


I CAN HAS CHLAMYDIA?
posted by Poolio at 12:46 AM on October 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Delmoi,

It's entirely possible that they used sections of natural bacterial DNA as templates to create the sections of their synthetic new DNA, in fact, this would be far easier than assembling their DNA nucleotide by nucleotide (copy). They also used a naturally created bacterium in which to place their new DNA (paste). The actual bacterium they created has no useful function in nature and may not even be able to sustain itself outside of a controlled environment. It is man's interpretation of what life is (art/novel).

Unfortunately the article is pretty thin on the details of how they accomplished it.
posted by 517 at 12:58 AM on October 7, 2007


"Craig Ventner" can be rearranged as either "Graven Cretin" or "Tavern Cringe."

False god or DT by-product — you be the judge!!!
posted by rob511 at 12:58 AM on October 7, 2007


The first artificial life form is an STD. What does that say about humanity?

ooh wait i know -- i'm guessing it's... "nothing." it's either "nothing" or "fucking nothing," isn't it?
posted by Hat Maui at 4:01 AM on October 7, 2007


Honey, I don't know how to tell you this, but...I'm infected with Mycoplasma laboratorium. Honest, I have no idea how it happened.
posted by strangeguitars at 4:12 AM on October 7, 2007


It really makes one wonder about the future viability of private versus public science, and dream of a day where basic science is funded by people with more money and ambition than the NSF.
There's little profit in funding basic research, but there's plenty of profit in using already-funded basic research.

This is the hybrid model used by the US government and US-based healthcare and pharmaceutical corporations, which are generally the most profitable legal businesses in the country.
I suppose that's the same sort of thing that's gone on in Finland as well since 1967, when the patent law was changed: The public pays for much (most?) of the basic research, enabling all the hard work in mapping out the dead ends and branching out towards all those things that are logically and empirically possible. Science! - It's growing like a tree! And at the ends of each branch grow little twigs; and at the end of each twig, if you look closely, you'll see little fruit developing.

The private companies look at the trunk and the large branches, nodding to the public: "Nice work. Lots of good firewood. Maybe you'll even have enough to build a new outhouse. But we wouldn't recommend cutting it down until late autumn."

"But these little twigs", the companies say, "aren't they pretty as well? We grew them all on our own!"
posted by Anything at 4:36 AM on October 7, 2007


This article says: The project, which Venter has been working on for five years along with a team of researchers, has been partially financed by the US Department of Energy in the hopes that it could lead to the creation of a new environmentally friendly fuel.

Also, more details on the patent: Venter's laboratory, the J. Craig Venter Institute, filed in 2006 for a US patent on the organism, claiming exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic "free-living organism that can grow and replicate."

Can he get a patent for something partially funded by the government?
posted by strangeguitars at 5:38 AM on October 7, 2007


Delmoi is wrong, Bletch and 517 are right. This really is like copy-pasting a "new" and "synthetic" organism. Really, it's most similar to what was done in Fred Blattner's lab last year (Science article here). It's a series of deletions of "unnecessary functions" leading to what could either be called a "new strain" or a "new species" depending on how you like to name your bacteria. There has been no de novo generation of biological function, and no significant modification of it either, for that matter. Just subtraction.

The step where the reduced-content genome of M. genitalium is synthesized chemically and then electroporated in total, into a host cell, to displace its native chromosome, is the part where Venter likes to pretend that he's "creating new life." But as Bletch pointed out above, the artificial synthesis of anything beyond nucleic acids, small peptides, and simple membranes is well beyond our capability right now. We're creating a piece of synthetic DNA (not a new accomplishment, although we are doing it faster and faster these days) and then relying on an existing organism to incorporate that DNA into its existing structure. Bacteria aren't well-mixed bags of soluble proteins, and that fine organizational structure is something we don't even understand... forget being able to synthesize it. I'm getting really sick of Venter making these huge splashes in the popular media saying he's created artificial life or whatever when he's really just refined an electroporation technique or spent a long time synthesizing a big DNA or whatever.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:07 AM on October 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Can he get a patent for something partially funded by the government?

Yes. There are some licensing and royalty issues involved, of course.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:08 AM on October 7, 2007


The first artificial life form is an STD. What does that say about humanity?

Well, I dunno about what this says, but I've often heard the quip that humanity itself is an STD...
posted by Zinger at 7:14 AM on October 7, 2007


Googled "humanity is an STD". 1 hit. No hits for "humanity is a social disease", but that sounds like an interesting concept: humanity is a disease that is transmitted sexually.
posted by strangeguitars at 8:08 AM on October 7, 2007


filed in 2006 for a US patent on the organism, claiming exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes

The wars of the future will not be fought over land or oil, but over copyright.
posted by signal at 8:35 AM on October 7, 2007


The wars of the future will not be fought over land or oil, but over copyright.

The future?
posted by loquacious at 9:03 AM on October 7, 2007


Aw, it's been done before. This is exactly the way Yakub created white people.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:14 AM on October 7, 2007


strangeguitars: life is a sexually-transmitted disease.
posted by blacklite at 11:50 AM on October 7, 2007


Delmoi is wrong

You're just realizing this?
posted by Eekacat at 12:01 PM on October 7, 2007


Dear Scientists,

Please engineer this STD to enhance orgasm, give us super strength, and act as birth control.

Thank you.
posted by tkchrist at 1:28 PM on October 7, 2007


Pot, a little exercise, and a vasectomy will do all that and more for you, tkchrist! No need to go bioengineering yourself an STD.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:15 PM on October 7, 2007


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