Synthetic Life By the Year's End? Yes, Proclaims Craig Venter.

By Eliza Strickland | August 24, 2009 4:34 pm

synthetic biologyAlthough scientists may not have come close to cataloging all the different kinds of life on the planet, genetics pioneer Craig Venter is pressing ahead with his plans to create biology version 2.0. Venter is at the forefront of the new field of synthetic biology, in which scientists try to create all new organisms out of their component genetic parts: “We’re moving from reading the genetic code to writing it” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette], Venter has said. Now, he and his colleagues have taken the next step towards synthetic life.

In a study published in Science, the researchers explain how they took the genome from the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides and transferred it to a yeast cell, where established genetic engineering techniques allow for easier tinkering. After altering the genome in several key ways, they transplanted it into the hollowed out shell of a different bacterial species, Mycoplasma capricolum. The breakthrough came when the altered genome “booted up” and began instructing its host bacterium to produce colonies of M. mycoides

That success will help researchers overcome a stubborn obstacle that has prevented the creation of a made-from-scratch life form. Last year, Venter’s team created a synthetic bacterial genome by stitching together pieces of synthesized DNA. To build a synthetic organism, however, researchers will have to transplant that synthetic genome into a cell and have it successfully reboot the cell. But that last step has proved problematic. The synthetic genome was assembled in yeast, which means it lacked some of the molecular markings characteristic of bacteria. Researchers discovered that without those markings, the host bacterium viewed the transplanted genome as a foreign invader and destroyed it [Technology Review]. In the new study, the researchers added chemical markings called methyl tags to the M. mycoides genome while it was in the yeast cell, permitting the genome to sneak past the host bacterium’s defenses.

What would be the point of creating strange new forms of life, other than to prove that we could? Synthetic biology experts say that re-engineered microorganisms may take on all sorts of jobs. For now, gene researchers are particularly excited about using energy-producing microbes as single-celled refineries for ethanol, biodiesel or other petroleum substitutes without using food crops such as corn [Bloomberg]. There’s big money to be made in such enterprises: ExxonMobil recently announced that it would invest $600 million in Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, to work on making fuel from algae. While algae is a much more complicated organism than the simple bacteria Venter mucked around with in the Science article, the principles of genetic manipulation that he is discovering will no doubt come in handy down the research pipeline.

Venter has a history of bold endeavors; in the 1990s he founded the private genomics company that raced federal scientists to complete the first draft of the human genome. He also has a reputation as an avid self-promoter with a habit of making big promises, so his latest statements about his team’s progress on synthetic life come as little surprise. “Assuming we don’t make any errors, I think it should work and we should have the first synthetic species by the end of the year,” he said [The Times].

That may sound optimistic, but since Venter’s efforts on the human genome are widely credited for speeding the project to completion a full three years ahead of schedule, many scientists will be waiting with interest to see if 2009 is truly the year of “Mycoplasma laboratorium, the first synthetic life.

Related Content:
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80beats: On the Quest for Synthetic Life, Scientists Build Their Own Cellular Protein Factory
80beats: Researcher’s Artificial DNA Works Almost Like the Real Thing
DISCOVER: A Synthetic Genome Is Built From Scratch
DISCOVER: Biologists Perform Genome Transplant
DISCOVER: DISCOVER Dialogue: Geneticist Craig Venter

Image: J. Craig Venter Institute

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Living World
  • Liz

    I find it odd you don’t even consider the ethical concerns this issue raises. It’s almost like “because we can do it, we should do it.” I’m not sure.

  • Mike

    Ethical schmethical.

    We can, and we should.

  • NewEnglandBob

    It will be accomplished by someone. I would rather someone like Ventner be in the forefront of this.

  • Joe Bogus

    Ventner has pissed God off — that’s why He gave us H1N1.

  • Christina Viering

    I saw the movie.

  • Biotechie

    How is H1N1 a curse as a result of Ventner? You basicly stated your God can only do as good as a Flu these days…! You were correct in calling yourself “Bogus”. To even be on this page mentioning God shows you were looking for a differnt magazines website.

    I agree 100% with you NE Bob.

  • Claire

    We can so we should? Isn’t that the kind of thinking that guided Bernie Madoff, or even Hitler? So we do everything that we think we can, dictated only by our desires? Isn’t that the definition of sociopathy?
    The law of unintended consequences never loomed larger than it does now.
    I would suggest that folks who think this is a wonderful pursuit research “Becky McClain” as well “Morgellons Disease”. Also consider the deaths of Chinese workers who worked with another highly controversial technology (nanotechnology).
    Tampering with the most basic elements of nature is the adult equivalent of a toddler putting a gun to his head to see what’ll happen.
    I’m glad I’m old and hope I don’t live long enough to see how these perversions of nature play out.

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    This whole concept makes me uneasy. I cannot objectively define it as unethical or ethical, but it just fills me with a sense of dread.
    Saying that something is right, wrong, or a pervesion of nature is entirely subjective. Other ethical principles are based on clearly defined fundamentals. For example I should not walk up to the local coffee shop and kill the barista. We accept that killing inncoents is wrong. I have an odd feeling that creating artificial life is wrong, but no fundamental principle is there to back it up. If you say it is wrong, simply because it is, you have nothing to add. Ethics are objective. Morals are subjective.
    I have never even heard nanotechnology called controversial. There is no objective ethical reason I can see that it would even be questioned.
    That being said, I hope Venter keeps up the work!

  • Chris

    Arbitrary Arbiter: agree with you completely. As for nanotechnology – it is controversial due to the possible health risks. The use of nanoparticles in a paint factory is being investigated as a possible cause of death of several chinese workers (I think – sorry I can’t quite remember the details). Also, there is research into the link between nanoparticles used in suncreen and some diesel oils, and Alzheimers – there is evidence that the particles find their way into the brains of mammals, possibly inhibiting the folding of key proteins.

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    Who was it that said technologies are morally neutral until implemented?

  • Art

    @biotechie:

    “Your God”:
    You sound like a villain. I get your point, but you seem too certain and a bit too boastful of your certainty. I hope you’re right though and if there is a god, He is drastically different than the one in the story books.

  • http://yaychat.com Dude

    One day we will create an organism that feeds on humans … then what? We better hurry up making robots to fight those new creatures. ;) Our future is actually a “sci-fi” movie it seems!

    “130 million years ago the dinosaurs died out thanks to a meteor, 65 million years ago Homo Sapiens died out thanks to carelessness, let’s be smart this time and approach these things carefully.”

  • Fever

    This is relevant to my interests.

  • goulet

    Whatever. I think it’s cool.
    It opens the door to a very scary place (incredible bio warfare). But at the same time, it’s just absolutely beautiful. Can you imagine “stitching” together a genome and creating life!

    So we’re playing God. We were created in his image afterall. I tend to think that goes beyond superficial characteristics.

  • Mombo

    Craig Venter is GOD!
    I saw an interview with Craig once and the interviewer said “you are playing god”, Craig replied, “someone has to”

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    What exactly are these ethical concerns??? I’m a bit puzzled.

    I do think that great care needs to be taken when creating any type of self-replicator, whether that be synthetic life, “nanobots”, or macro-sized replicating machines. There is the whole “grey goo” apocalypse scenario. We can debate how likely or unlikely that is, but I don’t think it’s overly credulous to suggest that research into this sort of thing ought to be well-regulated, so that an experimental self-replicator does not escape the lab.

    But even if this is a real concern, it’s a safety issue, not an ethical one. Where is the ethical issue? I just don’t get it… Are you worried that this synthetic bacteria will gave a soul? hahahaha…

  • Optimist

    Boy, it only took 6 replies before someone brought up Hitler. It reminds me of the level of discourse in our current health care reform debates. If god didn’t mean for us to tinker with “his creation”, then he wouldn’t have given us the means and intellect to do it. “Tampering with the most basic elements of nature” is what we call technology, and many of these technologies hold the promise of longer and healthier lives. Why can’t we focus on that, instead of doomsday and apocalyptic scenarios?

  • Mitch

    If we can, we should. No question about it. If it progresses us into the future like pretty much every scientific but controvercial breakthrough, then it will balance out with nature and everyday life. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of humanity just because humanity is progressing its self intothe future. And if you’re gonna throw the playing god card out, don’t we play god on almost an everyday basis? It’s time to stop reading a fiction book with no relavant proof of it’s topic or basis and it’s time to pick up the next issue of Discover.

  • Kmita

    Every post I see with the word ethics in it I’ve been passing over. Sorry to inform you but your sense of morality is subjective and essentially worthless in determining whether or not we should create synthetic life. Let’s reiterate, your morality is subjective. Doing this is neither “right” nor “wrong”. The only thing objectively true here is that you’re a moron if your flinging these things around as if they’re poignant thoughts.

  • http://www.synchronium.net Synchronium

    Craig Venter is my new hero. He looks like he should have the lair of a super-villain.

  • http://www.lifesciencefuture.net Odin Xenobuilder

    I can’t wait to get an algae oil factory set up on my back porch and grow oil for my car. :-) I’ll keep my eyes open for the Synthetic Genomics mail order service to get my home petrol kit. *waiting expectantly*

  • Mbee

    Science and Technology are the way we learn about the world and find the truth about life. This can help improve the lives of ourselves and of those who follow. It is up to humans to use what they discover to improve life for others. Unfortunately there are those who want to use the knowledge to hurt or harm others. That however is a human problem and not one caused by science. (DDT was aimed at helping and when it caused problems we came up with a solution – and moved on)

    If we hadn’t evolved to look and learn about our world around us and use that knowledge to grow and discover more we would still be fighting in tribes against other tribes. We don’t ‘need’ technology to do that – we’ve been doing that for many thousands of years. Hopefully the more we learn the less we will need to fight each other.

  • Godfree Gordon

    “There is a move to reinvent mankind, to modify the very grammar of life as planned and willed by God. (Gen. 1:27, 2:24) But, to take God’s place, without being God, is insane arrogance, a risky and dangerous venture.”

    I think the Pope’s accent got in the way. I thik he meant to say :a risky and dangerous VENTER” :-)

  • Firebird

    The gods are created in our image – because we create them.

    We should not do things just because we can. Artificial life certainly has potential at least comparable to stemcells. We should do AL (and other things) if they benefit and don’t harm to much. This is always the tricky balance (most medical treatment is harmfull but normally more helpfull), but if we never ventured beyond the non-harmfull we would still be in the trees.

    So: Move on, Venter!

  • Mike S

    Go Craig !

    … but try and leave the “religious” strands of DNA out of the mix :o )

  • matthew burns

    lets do it, this is the next step in setting up life on mars, and cleaning up this global oil addiction, and money problems.

  • Michael Connolly

    #7 – Optimist – “ ‘Tampering with the most basic elements of nature’ is what we call technology, and many of these technologies hold the promise of longer and healthier lives. Why can’t we focus on that, instead of doomsday and apocalyptic scenarios?”

    Gee, maybe the fact that the way we manage technology is resulting in genes hopping from genetically modified plants to other species, rapid desertification, sea level rise, new diseases, the near collapse of the global economy (and billions of bonuses for the clowns who drove the economy into a ditch), a worldwide epidemic of obesity and diabetes, and then there’s the new popularity of torture in the United States and the fact that our communications are regularly scanned by the NSA – maybe these uses of technology might lead someone to hesitate before tinkering with Life’s Operating System….

    Nah, what the hey! Go for it ! We’re Number One! Merka!

  • Mimi Stratton

    I’ve been against biotechnology ever since reading the foreword to Jurassic Park.

  • http://io9.com Annalee

    The question you should be asking isn’t whether we should do this. The question is who will OWN it. You can bet that Venter’s motivation – as it always has been – is profit. Do you really want Venter’s company to own new lifeforms? The implications of this question are profound, and it’s what we need to be asking right now before it’s too late.

  • Nick

    I belive that those who want to get all religious about this really needs to go back to church and to stay away from science. Science and religion don’t mix. Anyway, about creating synthetic life is a great idea and we should continue researching it. If it can do some good in finding alternate resources, then more power to him. I would like to see new species of life, plant or animal

  • dsad

    I wana see him create the entire universe in under 7 days outa nothing!

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