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Venter creates spiraling coils of self-replicating DNA.
May 20, 2010 10:50 AM   Subscribe

"The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet." - Freeman Dyson, on the J.C. Venter Institute's creation of a cell controlled by a synthetic genome. We are now in the business of engineering life.
posted by BoatMeme (62 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Upcoming films suggest that this will not wendell.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:53 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Take that, Peak Oil.
posted by codswallop at 10:56 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


and still no hover cars, what the hell?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:58 AM on May 20, 2010


What could go wrong?
posted by Thorzdad at 11:00 AM on May 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


something about a monk and some peas come to mind...
posted by Neekee at 11:01 AM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


and still no hover cars, what the hell?!

This field's disproportionate advancement is 90% driven by nerds secretly hoping to one day make their own Kelly LeBrock.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:04 AM on May 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


Just to clarify, the genome was built synthetically, but is a copy of a naturally existing genome. It's not a new life form.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:05 AM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's not a new life form.

Great, not just a mad scientist, but a lying mad scientist.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:06 AM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


These cells are soulless monsters!
posted by fleetmouse at 11:07 AM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


This field's disproportionate advancement is...

...completely illusory. Compare what we can do with genetic engineering vs any other form of engineering. The "disproportionate advancement" is more like "finally getting a handle on the really fundamental basics of biology". Like, now someone has gotten something basically roundish they are hoping one day to use as a wheel.
posted by DU at 11:09 AM on May 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


well I for one worship our green goo overlords...
posted by sexyrobot at 11:09 AM on May 20, 2010


So excited about the 21st century.

/squeal
posted by polymodus at 11:12 AM on May 20, 2010


Dyson Spheres-- now in smaller sizes, eh?
posted by jamjam at 11:13 AM on May 20, 2010


I think it's much less likely to kill us all than naturally occurring bacteria. "Real" life has evolved over millions of years to exploit every conceivable weakness in every conceivable environment. There are already tons of bacteria out there that would be perfectly happy to kill you today. Some junk created in a lab probably isn't going to have a chance in hell of actually competing if it's let out of the lab. Evolution is running trillions of experiments right now, looking for ways to get ahead.

RIGHT? SOMEONE REASSURE ME HERE BECAUSE I'M ON MY WAY TO MY SURVIVAL RETREAT.
posted by pjaust at 11:13 AM on May 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


Is it wrong that my favorite part of amazing but very slight advancements like this is the horrible, horrible journalism that will undoubtedly emerge?

IS THIS THE FIRST STEP TO SEX-BOTS? [Juxtaposed photos of random cell clip-art, Pris]
posted by griphus at 11:16 AM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Compare what we can do with genetic engineering vs any other form of engineering. The "disproportionate advancement" is more like "finally getting a handle on the really fundamental basics of biology". Like, now someone has gotten something basically roundish they are hoping one day to use as a wheel.

Until I get a hover car, I'm fuckin' pissed that R&D cash money is spent on the goddamn Slap Chop, let alone genetic engineering.

The only positive I take out of this is the increased chance of zombie outbreak due to their infernal meddling. If zombie outbreak were to happen, by the way, hover cars would totally kick ass. You'd be sitting there all yeah zombie, you can't get me 'cause i'm fuckin' HOVERING over your ass.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:17 AM on May 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


One question is whether or not a DNA sequence alone enough to generate a living creature. One way of reading of the paper suggests this doesn't seem to be the case because of the use of old microplasma cells into which the DNA was inserted — that this is not about "creating" life" because, the new life requires an existing living recipient cell. If this is the case, what is the chance of producing something de novo? The paper might appear to be about a somewhat banal technological feat. The new techniques build on existing capabilities. What else is being added, what is qualitatively new?

While it is correct to say that the individual cell was not created, a new line of cells (dare one say species?) was generated. This is new life that is self-propagating, i.e. "the cells with only the synthetic genome are self replicating and capable of logarithmic growth."
It sounds like a qualitative step to me but I'm not a biologist.
posted by Skorgu at 11:18 AM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open . . .

"Man," I cried, "how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!"
posted by stbalbach at 11:19 AM on May 20, 2010


everybody knows hovercars don't work on zombies
posted by DU at 11:21 AM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


New York Times: Researchers Say They Created a ‘Synthetic Cell’
posted by BoatMeme at 11:24 AM on May 20, 2010


There are already tons of bacteria out there that would be perfectly happy to kill you today. Some junk created in a lab probably isn't going to have a chance in hell of actually competing if it's let out of the lab. Evolution is running trillions of experiments right now, looking for ways to get ahead.

Bullshit. Evolution isn't an active agent. It's passive. The things that survive survive because they don't die. That's it. 'Evolution' isn't looking for ways to get ahead. Things are just looking to not die. There's a big difference. Usually, the bare minimum will suffice and is often preferable.

Furthermore, evolution is incremental. Life that could be synthesized in a lab would not, and can be very unpredictable.

'Hey, Jimmy, let's see how our flesh-eating vampire bat wasps are coming along this wee....AHHH FUCK THE CAGE IS OPEN IT HAS MY HEA...'

See? See what happens?
posted by jimmythefish at 11:31 AM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


This seems to be the news release.
posted by longsleeves at 11:32 AM on May 20, 2010


Mutant WWE comes one step closer...
posted by Damienmce at 11:40 AM on May 20, 2010


It won't be flesh-eating vampire bat wasps that cause the end. It'll be a bacterium designed to paint Malibu Barbie's Dream Convertible that mutates and escapes, and the last few remaining humans, before they too die, will struggle in vain to clear the hot pink goo from the entrance to the supermarket in their attempt to get canned food.
posted by longsleeves at 11:43 AM on May 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Venter is looking to engineer organisims for maximizing their biofuels. I'm guessing by a totally synthetic approach (as opposed to the status quo splicing methods) is that he can get a better control over where the artifical genes are inserted, and maybe be able to genetically engineer a wider range of species. I am definitely not any kind of biologist, though. Are there any qualified MeFis out there who care to comment?
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 11:47 AM on May 20, 2010


So let's see if I understand this: They sequenced the genome, put it into a computer. Then they used the data to produce a synthetic copy of the genome, and plopped it into a hollowed out cell? And it worked? Pretty cool!
Seems to me the next step is to start switching some of that data around and plopping the output into hollowed out cells to see what happens. Step 3: Zombies?
posted by joecacti at 11:49 AM on May 20, 2010


This is another incremental advancement, not a paradigm shift. Scientists have been able to clone cells for years by swapping a cell's native DNA with DNA from a different biological source. They've also been able to chemically synthesize DNA from scratch, though until recently, they've been limited to rather short stretches. The advancement here is that Venter et al came up with some clever techniques for stitching together those short stretches of synthesized DNA into longer stretches, and then stitching those into even longer stretches, etc, until eventually he had a full-length genome. Then he shot the completed genome into a cell with its native DNA removed, thereby transforming one species of bacteria into another.

In theory, one could use any genome with this technique, though the transcriptional machinery of the host cell might limit compatibility to related domains or phyla. We're still lightyears, however, from creating de novo functional genomes, rather than simply copying existing genomes. The next step will be taking existing genomes and modifying them slightly in order to try to alter their phenotypes in desirable ways, i.e. to produce drugs or biofuels.
posted by dephlogisticated at 12:04 PM on May 20, 2010 [11 favorites]


Thanks, dephlogisticated!
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:10 PM on May 20, 2010


I think an early reply merits more explanation.

Just to clarify, the genome was built synthetically, but is a copy of a naturally existing genome. It's not a new life form.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:05 AM on May 20 [+] [!]

Think of it as a bacterial chromosome frankenstein. Pieces were selected and spliced together to see if they would live (i.e. multiply and divide). This is an important step as it allows one to use a constructive approach vs. destructive (eg remove a gene and see what happens).

The hype seems to make far more of this important but small step ahead.
posted by oshburghor at 12:11 PM on May 20, 2010


Mutant WWE comes one step closer...

Like CT needs to worry about a mutant McMahon? Yeesh, Metafilter's all nightmare material today.
posted by cobaltnine at 12:13 PM on May 20, 2010


Do the systems that foster technology have sufficient motive, self-awareness and control to reserve that technology for compassionate use?

Are the monocultures created by strict information controls too frail to be justified by financial gain?
posted by spaceboy86 at 12:14 PM on May 20, 2010


We are now in the business of engineering life.

For "we", read "the US military and her largest corporations", of course.
posted by rokusan at 12:26 PM on May 20, 2010


For "we", read "the US military and her largest corporations", of course.

If anyone had to be doing this business on behalf of entrenched interests, I'd prefer it to be Venter. He is one of very few who recognize that the human species is going to hit an energy-and-or-pollution brick wall pretty soon and is someone with the brains and skills to help engineer something to save most of us from a pretty awful fate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:50 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, I agree, Blazecock. I've nothing against these pioneers. But it's a pebble in a pool.

Once it comes to the very expensive business of designing and building higher life forms, who do you expect will have the budget, or enough vested interest? That's the scary part.
posted by rokusan at 1:01 PM on May 20, 2010


I can never tell if people here are genuinely afraid of this sort of thing, or just being fashionably snarky. Just in case: you should be aware that surviving in a human host is no easy trick, since the immune system wants to kill you. Furthermore, releasing toxic compounds that can kill the human host is also difficult. These things don't happen "accidentally", any more than your iPhone would accidentally obtain sentience and proceed to murder you with a spontaneously generated lightning gun. Of course, someone could (far down the line) maybe make biological weapons with this technique, but deadly biological weapons already exist, and I don't see how this technology would make them easier to obtain.

The sorts of organisms produced by this kind of research are deliberately stripped down. There's two basic techniques being pursued: a) remove genes from existing organisms, b) build stripped down organisms from scratch. The payoffs from both approaches are also two-fold: 1) improved understanding of how microorganisms work, 2) microorganisms with dramatically lower overhead. Because they lack the complicated genomes and associated defense mechanisms that wild organisms have, these cells are better able to produce "product" for industry, whatever that might be. They become little factories. However, unless deliberately turned into weapons, they are to wild microbes what wiener dogs are to wolves.

Oh, and since the article raises the question without really answering it. No, a genome by itself does not determine an organism. We inherit DNA from our parents, but also the cellular machinery to do something with it.
posted by Humanzee at 1:08 PM on May 20, 2010


MetaFilter: Fashionably snarky.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:26 PM on May 20, 2010


Call me when they can create a cell from scratch!
posted by Maias at 2:20 PM on May 20, 2010


I for one, welcome our Kelly LeBrock overlords.

Yeah, well, still.
posted by Xoebe at 2:39 PM on May 20, 2010


> These things don't happen "accidentally", any more than your iPhone would accidentally obtain sentience and proceed to murder you with a spontaneously generated lightning gun.

Dude I am SO not sleeping easily tonight.
posted by ardgedee at 2:41 PM on May 20, 2010


We're still lightyears, however, from creating de novo functional genomes, rather than simply copying existing genomes. The next step will be taking existing genomes and modifying them slightly in order to try to alter their phenotypes in desirable ways, i.e. to produce drugs or biofuels.

Actually, the next step here, which Ventner himself has been talking about for some time, is to make a new bacteria with a minimalist genome. The point is for create an organism that can serve as a simple self-replicating scaffold in which synthetic biologists can set their creations. By reducing the number of genes to a minimum, you can greatly reduce the probability of unanticipated side reactions or interactions.

This paper shows that Ventner and others have the tech for synthesizing whole genomes and swapping them into cells. Next comes the experiments for minimizing and simplifying the genome. The product of that will be the vehicle for a whole lot of cool new stuff, solar biofuels are the least of it.
posted by overhauser at 2:46 PM on May 20, 2010


jimmythefish: "See? See what happens?"

Yeah, it's the intro for a rom-com.
posted by brokkr at 3:28 PM on May 20, 2010


The first step is always the hardest part and, to those not in the know, the least impressive.
posted by davejay at 3:39 PM on May 20, 2010


Mycoplasmas can still give you a nasty case of pneumonia.

The last thing you need when you're feeling sick as a dog is worrying about the J. Craig Venter Institute suing you for copyright infringement.
posted by bad grammar at 4:46 PM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think it's fascinating that the media give Venter personal credit for this advancement. Venter is more Edison than Einstein, running a network of labs with hundreds of PhD biologists and probably several thousand support personnel. Some of the money comes from investors, some from nonprofits, and some from Venter's personal fortune, but the biggest chunk comes from you and me in the form of federal grants.

If a university had done this, the news stories would read "Researchers at Kalamazoo State did X," with the understanding that the project was the cooperative work of many smart people. That's if it even made the news, because university PR departments are nowhere near as coordinated as Venter's. But when a team of scientists at the Venter Institute finish a project, it's as if he were personally putting things into test tubes.

Then again, we all give Edison credit for inventing the light bulb.
posted by miyabo at 5:37 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Speaking of creating new life forms, Ebert reviewed the Human Centipede today.
posted by daniel striped tiger at 6:23 PM on May 20, 2010


I can't decide if this is insane or just inane.
posted by sneebler at 7:22 PM on May 20, 2010


The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.

This is obviously true, but it sounds like we're not actually at the point yet.
posted by clockzero at 7:51 PM on May 20, 2010


Venter is a self aggrandizing douche-nozzle.

It's cool that he has the money to work on new techniques, but his (and the mainstream press's) exaggeration of the profoundity of said techniques disserves molecular biology and science in general.

(Current) Extreme length nucleotide synthesis is getting longer and longer all the time. I've been getting spam about being able to buy 1kb (1000 base pairs) oligos (and presumably, double-stranded DNA) - basically, many many many strands of DNA that's made chemically, where every base pair is decided by whomever makes the strands of DNA. The limitation is that the longer (and more strands) that you make, the more errors are introduced (or rather, more and more of the strands have errors in them - there's also a limitation on long long individual strands can be made without earlier parts of the strand being damaged).

Actinomycetes (a very common group of soil bacteria - of which most modern antibiotics are discovered from) have a genome between 5 and 8 megabases (million bases), mycobacterium have about 0.5 megabases. Humans have about 3 billion (3 gigabases? that doesn't quite sound right to me right now) base pairs.

If they moved mycobacterium nuclei from one cell to another, that's like moving something (mycobaceterium genome) on an old floppy disk to moving a bunch of somethings (common bacterial genomes) on a zip disk to moving something (human genome) on a DVD.

Funnily, if you get a sequence of DNA into something like a plasmid (think... "handles" for the bacterial machinery to get their sticky little hands on), the error rate (in tame, domesticated bacteria developed to do exactly this) is infinitisimal.
posted by porpoise at 9:53 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


This paper shows that Ventner and others have the tech for synthesizing whole genomes and swapping them into cells. Next comes the experiments for minimizing and simplifying the genome. The product of that will be the vehicle for a whole lot of cool new stuff, solar biofuels are the least of it.

Why do you need minimal genomes for that? It seems like you'd just wind up with something less robust than, say, E. coli or S. cerevisiae. Things that metabolic engineers have been working on for the past 30 years to make biofuels, natural products, etc. This is well-tread ground, my friend.

I dunno. I think you can put me in the "Emperor's New Clothes" category here. It's great that chemists have figured out methods of synthesizing long oligos with low error rates; kinda sucks to see biologists getting credit for it.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:10 PM on May 20, 2010


I've blogged a non-technical explanation of this paper here.
posted by gene_machine at 5:03 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


The next step will be taking existing genomes and modifying them slightly in order to try to alter their phenotypes in desirable ways, i.e. to produce drugs...

Uh, I've been on the downstream end of this next step for about 15 years personally.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:33 AM on May 21, 2010


Evolution is running trillions of experiments right now, looking for ways to get ahead.

Bullshit. Evolution isn't an active agent. It's passive. The things that survive survive because they don't die. That's it. 'Evolution' isn't looking for ways to get ahead. Things are just looking to not die. There's a big difference. Usually, the bare minimum will suffice and is often preferable.


Will you accept, "There are a trillion parallel experiments going on right now where the things that come out ahead win." Because if come out ahead = kill and eat you it doesn't mater whether or not you anthropomorphise this phenomenon or not because you will still be dead and eaten.

I got pretty good at synthetic chemistry by learning what it was the electrons wanted and giving it to them. You can say they don't want at all but they still come when I call and sleep on my side of the bed.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:43 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


We are now in the business of engineering life.

For "we", read "the US military and her largest corporations", of course.


You have a kitchen, get your ass in gear.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:50 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is my sincere belief that everything J Craig Venter does is part of a long-running audition for the part of a Bond villain.
posted by alby at 9:33 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ebert reviewed the Human Centipede today.

Why couldn't that say "Ebert interviewed the Human Centipeded today" the both times I read it?
posted by griphus at 9:35 AM on May 21, 2010


That's still not really our own original design at the most basic level, right? I think it's fine to call some of the robots that we can create life: they are animate and self-sustaining.
posted by aesacus at 11:28 AM on May 21, 2010


Church warns cell scientists not to play God
posted by homunculus at 1:46 PM on May 21, 2010


Church warns cell scientists not to play God
Thanks for the tip. Here's your change:
Cell scientists warn church not to fuck little boys
posted by Humanzee at 8:29 PM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


James Joyce’s Words Come To Life, And Are Promptly Desecrated
posted by homunculus at 8:56 PM on May 21, 2010


We've been creating life for a long time. It's as easy as fucking (and eventually pushing really hard).
posted by mrgrimm at 11:03 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Synthetic life patents 'damaging': A top UK scientist who helped sequence the human genome has said efforts to patent the first synthetic life form would give its creator a monopoly on a range of genetic engineering.
posted by homunculus at 12:05 PM on May 25, 2010


Speaking of patents and research: Legal challenge between Palo Alto company, Orange County hospital halts stem cell research
posted by homunculus at 12:16 PM on May 25, 2010


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