Synthetic Genome+Natural Cell=New Life?

By Carl Zimmer | May 20, 2010 12:55 pm

Craig Venter has taken yet another step towards his goal of creating synthetic life forms. He’s synthesized the genome of a microbe and then implanted that piece of DNA into a DNA-free cell of another species. And that…that thing…can grow and divide. It’s hard to say whether this is “life from scratch,” because the boundary between such a thing and ordinary life (and non-life) is actually blurry. For example, you could say that this is still a nature hybrid, because its DNA is based on the sequence of an existing species of bacteria. If Venter made up a sequence from scratch, maybe we’d have crossed to a new terrain.

Anyway–this news just hit the wires thanks to an embargo break, so I don’t have time to go into more detail. Joe Palca at NPR has posted his article on the subject. For background, please check out these stories I’ve written about this general area of research:

Tinker, Tailor: Can Venter Stitch Together A Genome From Scratch?

The Meaning of Life

The Six Most Important Experiments In The World

Artificial Life? Old News.

The High-Tech Search For A Cleaner Biofuel Alternative

On the Origin of Tomorrow

My Bloggingheads interview with Venter

Update: The scientists are in a live press conference that started a 1 pm.


Comments (25)

  1. jim

    Hi Carl

    There is now a facebook page for those opposing this development…!/pages/Stop-Synthetic-Life/122842021072292

  2. ThatPirateGuy

    The anti-progress wing sure didn’t take long to mobilize did it?

  3. Giffy

    I went ahead and made one supporting Synthetic Life!/pages/Support-Synthetic-Life/125574314135508

    I’ll try to make it prettier soon!

  4. Hurray for Venter! Has he been able to test the life form’s intelligence yet? Betcha it’s already smarter than Andrew Schlafly.

  5. steve

    Betcha it’s already smarter than Andrew Schlafly.

    That’s not setting the bar very high …

  6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    My view of life is different than a cluster of atoms assembled one by one, as some posts seem to suggest as implicit definition. Nor do I think much of Collins goalpost move.

    The cell machinery has been inherited from the first cell on down. But it, as the genome, has been modified (through the genome). As Venter’s et al new genome metabolize and divide, which they do and better than the original in fact, they eventually replace the old machinery.

    Defining evolution as Larry Moran does, “a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations”, we can explicitly understand life as the process of evolution as observed in actual biological populations. In this view virus is life, and these cells will become fully “synthetic life” over time, as the new genome proteins replace the old metabolism. Actually it is a new man made mode of evolution by this definition, so one could possibly defend that it is life “as is”.

    The process view is, besides its relationship to physics et cetera, the most natural and inclusive view. We will likely never be able to assemble a cell from pieces only any more than we can build a modern computer from pieces only. Both of them will have to be booted up with their respective software, for very much the analogous reason – it is too difficult to get the initial state correct in hardware assembly. Yet we say that the computer is constructed (synthetic), so we should do the same elsewhere.

    It is mostly futile to predict where new technology will take us. But on the predictive horizon is the minimal genome that Venter et al assembled and “only” awaited confirmation on the method. The minimal genome and its relatives will inform us somewhat on the requirements for the first modern cell population and how it came to be. It may take us further back than modern compilations of the LUCA, if we are lucky. I can’t wait!

  7. david

    Very exciting.

    I think people are going to consider artificial/created-life work controversial until we have extraordinarily resilient ways (better than evolved mechanisms) of preventing mutations in designed organisms.

  8. Janet

    According to the paper, they didn’t remove the DNA from the host cell before transplanting in the “donor” DNA. Instead, they manipulated the methylation patterns and restriction systems of host and donor so that the host DNA was recognized as foreign by the donor DNA, while the donor DNA was not recognized as foreign by the host DNA — so the donor DNA destroyed the host DNA and took over the cell.

  9. Ken Pidcock

    While this isn’t a scientific breakthrough, in that we don’t know anything new about nature, it is an engineering breakthrough of the highest calibre.

    I’ve long been a Venter fan, finding his fully justified arrogance highly entertaining. It’s a great business story as well as a scientific one. And Steve Jobs will never pull a “one more thing” like the Mycoplasma genitalium genome.

  10. Anchor

    Nature – which has performed much more extravagant feats countless times (and probably not just on our itty bitty world) without ever having to even think about it – yawns.

    Of course, nature has no purpose, no thinking capacity, and no recognizable reason or capacity for “yawning”, but in the minds of the Ped-Protectors in the Vatican, who see fit to “warn” scientists not to “play” what they refer to as “God”. (A non-existent turf SOME of them would actually defend to the death…given the slightest opportunity, most of them would bolt for even RANCID meat like hyenas).

    This is definitely a fantastic accomplishment, no doubt. I’m just astonished it took this long to accomplish it.

    Now, I fervently look forward to ordering up a deliciously thick and juicy “steak”, complete with complex muscle-like tissue invested with everything from lymph to blood vessels, well marbled by fat, derived from an appropriately flavorful complex of multiplying cells WITHOUT those parts that typically must attend such fare today, which I do NOT require to eat, but if I did nevertheless requires the slaughtering and suffering of a sentient animal. And I’ll savor it with spices and with gravy and dumplings etc…and never EVER have to argue with a religious or vegger imbecile again as I savor the juices of myriad proteins and fat I need not ever again attribute to the death of anything more than artificially contrived tissue utterly unassociated with anything attached to the salient reason for suffering.

    Or does the Pope think it ungodly to relieve suffering whenever possible? Or do humans (especially Christian humans) have a monopoly on the horrors of suffering too?

    (Pardon me as I pause to slurp up the rest of a delectablly MEATY dish…flavored with mushrooms and sage).

    The Pope, his poppets, and their fantasy faith are an absolute and consummate disgrace to human civilization for imagining that this could lead to a tradition of “playing God”. What, after all, have THOSE bastards PRIMARILY ALWAYS been up to for the last 2000 years? Playing Penocle?

    However, they need not fear that I selectively pick on them unfairly: I firmly believe that their schtick is entirely equivalent to every other ridiculous excuse of a world view based on supernatural premises…even if the Roman Catholic authorities do happen to have an excessive penchant for protecting their interest in pedophilia while simultaneously exercising an astonishing audacity in continuing to dictate graceful and virtuous behavior in others, in particular, “WARNING” scientists not to play God.

    And, while I have far more patience and sympathy reserved for my vegetarian friends (me being one of them as conditions reasonably permit) they may find solace in a future where they can finally put their smirks away, retire their superior attitude, shut the hell up without ever having to wreck another person’s meal, and enjoy some enormously tasty food (for a change) invested with some forms of nutrition rumored to be capable of actually improving their powers of thinking – with the full knowledge that not a single complex nervous system ever needed to suffer the experience of death.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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