Early Earth’s chemical seas are presumed to have given rise to the first life, but how could anything so complex have come from such a disorganized stew of molecules? That’s the question Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute is exploring with his swarms of self-replicating RNA, which can evolve over time. Along with Steve Benner, Craig Venter, Jack Szostak, and others, he is on the road to creating life in the lab, thus giving us insight into both our origins and what, exactly, “life” is. As Dennis Overbye writes in a look at the field in the New York Times:
The possibilities of a second example of life are as deep as the imagination. It could be based on DNA that uses a different genetic code, with perhaps more or fewer than four letters; it could be based on some complex molecule other than DNA, or more than the 20 amino acids from which our own proteins are made, or even some kind of chemistry based on something other than carbon and the other elements that we take for granted, like phosphorous or iron. Others wonder whether chemistry is necessary at all. Could life manifest itself, for example, in the pattern of electrically charged dust grains in a giant interstellar cloud, as the British astronomer and author Fred Hoyle imagined in his novel “The Black Cloud”?
In its first official report, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues recommended that the budding field of synthetic biology remain unregulated.
In the report‘s (pdf) 18 recommendations, the commission does suggest that synthetic biologists should self-regulate their work and be required to take ethics training. It also recommends that the president’s office better coordinate government agencies to oversee the work. But it stopped short of calling for a halt on research that creates organisms not found in nature.
“The commission thinks it imprudent either to declare a moratorium on synthetic biology until all risks can be determined and mitigated, or to simply ‘let science rip,’ regardless of the likely risks,” the report says. “The Commission instead proposes a middle ground — an ongoing system of prudent vigilance that carefully monitors, identifies and mitigates potential and realized harms over time.” [The New York Times]
Here in the United States, people are all atwitter about Craig Venter’s announcement last week of a new “synthetic cell,” and whether it constitutes creating life or simply a nifty new step in genetic engineering. Across the pond in the U.K., however, there are increasing rumblings of a more practical matter: Whether the patents that Venter is seeking to protect his work will bring a chill to genetic engineering research elsewhere.
Dr Venter’s [team] has applied for patents on the methods it used to create the new organism, nicknamed Synthia, by transferring a bacterial genome built from scratch into the shell of another bacterium. Synthia’s genetic code contains four DNA “watermarks”, including famous quotations and the names of the scientists behind the research, that could be used to detect cases of unauthorised copying [The Times].
Nobel winner John Sulston is the main man sounding the alarm (pdf); he argues that Venter is trying to obtain a “monopoly” on a range of genetic engineering techniques, which would prevent other researchers from freely experimenting with those methods. He’s also a familiar adversary to Venter. The two butted heads a decade ago when scientists were rushing to sequence the human genome.
Craig Venter led a private sector effort which was to have seen charges for access to the information. John Sulston was part of a government and charity-backed effort to make the genome freely available to all scientists [BBC News].
In another step forward in the quest to create artificial life in a test tube, a team of genetic engineers led by Craig Venter has built a synthetic genome and proved that it can power up when placed inside an existing cell.
Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” [The New York Times]
The technical achievement is worth crowing about. The researchers built on Venter’s trick from last year, in which he took the genome from one bacterium, transferred it the hollowed-out shell of a different bacterial species, and watched as the new cell “booted up” successfully. In this new step, the researchers built a genome from scratch, copying the genetic code from a bacterium that infects goats and introducing just a few changes as a “watermark”; then they transferred that synthetic genome to a cell. As the researchers report in Science, the cell functioned and replicated, creating more copies of the slightly altered goat-infecting bacterium–now nicknamed Synthia.
But the reactions to Venter’s accomplishment have been mixed–while some celebratory headlines trumpeted the creation of artificial life, many scientists said the reaction was overblown, and took issue with Venter’s claim of having created a truly synthetic cell. Here, we round up a selection of responses from all corners of the science world.
Although 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.