Synthetic life is now just around the corner.
January 26, 2008 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Scientists have built the first synthetic genome by stringing together 147 pages of letters representing the building blocks of DNA.
posted by geeknik (18 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
And then read this piece by Carl Zimmer which explains why this development isn't all that exciting. It's an important step, but raises as many questions as answers.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:09 PM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Previously discussed, last time Venter rolled out a press release.

Choice comments:
"Venter is apparently under the impression that bacteria are homogeneous bags consisting of a chromosome and a few other bits." from Bletch, here

"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." from rxrfrx, here.
posted by blacklite at 12:14 PM on January 26, 2008

Sure, it's one of the smallest genomes in existance, which makes it nice and convenient for this purpose, but maybe the scientists should have chosen to synthesize something other than Mycoplasma genitalium. The world doesn't need any more diseased urethrae, thanks.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:20 PM on January 26, 2008

Awesome. Humanity can't even be trusted with the internal combustion engine, and we're planning on making synthetic life.

I'll read the article now. Sorry.
posted by Citizen Premier at 12:41 PM on January 26, 2008

The Wright brother's machine is simply too flimsy and underpowered to be of any use. It's an obvious media stunt, designed to promote their bicycle shop.

I've got a bad feeling that before this technology can benefit mankind as profoundly as antibiotics, vaccines, and the green revolution combined, the suicidal religious zealots will use it to kill us all.
posted by Tube at 12:43 PM on January 26, 2008

Well, creating fully artificial life is more or less useless except as a handwaving gesture. This shows that the technology now exists to be able to create a specified microbial genome and in combination with his other work, transform that genome into a working cell (I'm guessing that is what they are doing now).

This is more akin to installing a new OS on the cell than creating true artificial life, with the new OS potentially able to do new things like make drugs or bioethanol, or carry out bioremediation that the old OS can't do. While it would be interesting if he had made the "computer" from scratch, this development is much more useful.
posted by scodger at 12:48 PM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

scodger: What capability does this "OS" have that any naturally existing organisms, combined with any previously implemented modifications, do not?
posted by rxrfrx at 1:01 PM on January 26, 2008

Yeah, I'm not entirely clear on what advantages this approach has over standard recombinant techniques. It's certainly much more difficult and expensive.

And it's not like they're designing the genes from scratch; they're just copying verbatim from biology.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:16 PM on January 26, 2008

This is more akin to installing a new OS on the cell than creating true artificial life, with the new OS potentially able to do new things like make drugs or bioethanol, or carry out bioremediation that the old OS can't do.

Oy. Inapt 'real world' metaphors are bad enough when they are applied to computers, making computer metaphors when talking about other things is just as as silly. You can talk about OS's and programs all day, but you miss the important distinction: Almost all computer programs are the creation of people. A few computer programs are the result of 'natural selection', and people always get excited about genetic algorithms doing new things.

Now, we have the first 'designed' microbe DNA. This is unlike anything done before because it involved no evolution. Except, it did because Venter used natural 'building blocks'. That had evolved on their own.

Venter's work is probably much more impressive to a layperson then a scientist who probably thinks "Well, that's no impressive, I could have done that if I'd had the funding for it, but I couldn't get a grant for that because it's stupid!" At least that's my impression.

So my point is... Lets watch our metaphors, people.
posted by delmoi at 1:19 PM on January 26, 2008

rxrfrx: At the moment, not many. But it has a massive advantage in that it is a very minimal set of 328 genes, much more simple than E. Coli at about 2500. The simpleness is a great advantage, as the organism is much less "black box" like (even if there are still ~100 genes of unknown function) and less likely to have unknown effects when modified for a new function. Think Damn Small Linux vs Vista.

Synthetic biology needs a well understood and easy to modify workhorse, and if they can transform this genome into a working cell, I would be very surprised if it does not replace E. coli as the new model system in several years time.
posted by scodger at 1:23 PM on January 26, 2008

scodger: The M. genitalium genome contains 470 predicted ORFs. Cutting this down to 328 genes isn't a trivial task, but as delmoi said, well, it's a little stupid to spend time re-synthesizing all of the minimal genes just so you can say you accomplished something that nobody really doubted you could do. There are a number of notable individuals working on mycoplasmas because of their natural simplicity, and only Venter is going to the popular press every other month and making a mountain out of a molehill.

Personally, I'd say a much more notable accomplishment is Fred Blattner's reduced-genome E. coli, which is not a minimal genome, but rather a trimming of "bothersome" or "extraneous" sequences that can interfere with laboratory work.
posted by rxrfrx at 1:34 PM on January 26, 2008

I want to meet Craig Venter's publicist. He's the real genius!
posted by kisch mokusch at 3:05 PM on January 26, 2008

Yeah, when they can put together a living cell from scratch, then I'll be excited.

However, when I last reported on this area, I was surprised to find that people think a "minimal" genome might be similar to early life. What they forget is that editing is a luxury and a difficult task: early life probably had lots of extraneous stuff.
posted by Maias at 6:41 PM on January 26, 2008

"(Otherwise it's like) writing Vista in binary," he said. "It's just not going to happen."

Please, PLEASE, keep Microsoft programmers away from the molecular heavy machinery.
posted by SevenPercentSolution at 7:10 PM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've read the actual paper, and Zimmer's piece is everything I would have said only better written - technically, it's a great step, and if and when they manage to build on it it will be great science. For now, they've done some elegant recomination steps and got them to work, and all the media coverage seems more to do with the Venter publicity machine than the actual science.

Sys Rq: according to the paper, you only need to disrupt one gene to stop M. genitalum being pathogenic, so your urethra is safe from Craig Venter. For now.
posted by penguinliz at 2:07 AM on January 27, 2008

kisch mokusch: She; they just got engaged.
posted by gene_machine at 1:33 PM on January 27, 2008

Yeah, when they can put together a living cell from scratch, then I'll be excited.

Sander Greenland, an epidemiologist/statistician who routinely criticizes the medical and health literature for assuming more certainty than any of the studies published actually can support, once said at a talk I attended:
"When they can go into a laboratory with nothing but chemicals and come out with a baby, then I'll be willing to base practice on their theories."
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:59 AM on January 28, 2008

kisch mokusch: She; they just got engaged.

Heh. It's funny how people get romantically involved when they spend all their time together at work.
posted by kisch mokusch at 1:44 PM on January 28, 2008

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