One Small Step for Synthetic Biology, One Large Step Into the Unknown

By Jeremy Jacquot | June 4, 2010 7:16 pm

If you have even a passing interest in science, it was hard to miss the big, bold headlines splashed across newspaper front pages and websites a few weeks ago: “Scientists Create New Life.” I’m talking, of course, about Craig Venter’s latest research breakthrough, which, as most of you reading this may already know, consisted of inserting an artificial genome into a bacterial cell and coaxing it to life.

More specifically, his team of scientists replicated the design for an existing 1,080 base pair bacterial genome and had Blue Heron, a firm based in Bothell, WA, construct it by stitching together chemically synthesized oligonucleotides (the building blocks of DNA). The 1,080 bp genomes, also known as cassettes, were grown in yeast cells and, following a series of steps in which the intermediate assemblies were checked for errors and compatibility issues, inserted into the hollowed out recipient cells.

While much has been said about whether or not this feat constitutes the creation of a “new” life form (and, like many far more illustrious individuals, I happen to think it doesn’t), what is clear is that there is still much more work to be done before we get to the point when we can easily build cells and boot them up with specialized “software” to produce fuel, anti-malarial drugs or any number of biological derivatives.

As the researchers were quick to point out, they endured weeks of toil and frustration to fix a handful of incorrect base pairs that rendered their genome inactive. Get stuck with a single misplaced base out of a million in a crucial gene, and you’re dead in the water. That’s why I believe that the concerns over terrorists acquiring these technologies and building bioweapons are overblown. If it took Venter’s supremely qualified scientists several years and who knows how much money to reach this point, I find it very unlikely that a rogue band of scientists, however talented, could easily carry this task to completion.

What is potentially of more concern, at least in the short term, is the possibility that Venter’s outfit, or others, could try to patent these innovative technologies and thus keep a substantial number of able and less well-funded scientists out in the cold. Though it’s unlikely that a single company, like Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, will become a monopoly, the fact that it, along with other companies and large institutions, could erect barriers to promising areas of research could put a damper on scientific progress.

People will always be able to turn to organizations like the BioBricks Foundation, an open source entity that provides all comers with Lego-like DNA parts to encode certain vital functions in cells, but, much like Linux-based platforms in the computing world have struggled to even make a dent in Microsoft’s and Apple’s mindshare, it will be tough to compete against the behemoths of the synthetic biology world. One can only hope that the government, or a qualified third party, will ensure that parity remains and that advances in medicine and biology not be significantly hindered by one, or many, corporations.

If you have even a passing interest in science, it was hard to miss the big, bold headlines splashed across newspaper front pages and websites a few weeks ago: “Scientists Create New Life.” I’m talking, of course, about Craig Venter’s latest research breakthrough, which, as most of you reading this may already know, consisted of inserting an artificial genome into a bacterial cell and coaxing it to “life.”

More specifically, his team of scientists replicated the design for an existing 1,080 base pair bacterial genome and had Blue Heron, a firm based in Bothell, WA, construct it by stitching together chemically synthesized oligonucleotides (the building blocks of DNA). The 1,080 bp genomes, also known as cassettes, were grown in yeast cells and, following a series of steps in which the intermediate assemblies were checked for errors and compatibility issues, inserted into the hollowed out recipient cells.

While much has been said about whether or not this feat constitutes the creation of a “new” life form (and, like many far more illustrious individuals, I happen to think it doesn’t), what is clear is that there is still much more work to be done before we get to the point when we can easily build cells and boot them up with specialized “software” to produce fuel, anti-malarial drugs or any number of biological derivatives.

As the researchers were quick to point out, they endured weeks of toil and frustration to fix a handful of incorrect base pairs that rendered their genome inactive. Get stuck with a single misplaced base out of a million in a crucial gene, and you’re dead in the water. That’s why I believe that the concerns over terrorists acquiring these technologies and building bioweapons are overblown. If it took Venter’s supremely qualified scientists several years and who knows how much money to reach this point, I find it very unlikely that a rogue band of scientists, however talented, could easily carry this task to completion.

What is potentially of more concern, at least in the short term, is the possibility that Venter’s outfit, or others, could try to patent these innovative technologies and thus keep a substantial number of able and less well-funded scientists out in the cold. Though it’s unlikely that a single company, like Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, will become a monopoly, the fact that it, along with other companies and large institutions, could erect barriers to promising areas of research could put a damper on scientific progress. (And, if you believe all the glorified hype, synthetic biology could eventually produce all the drugs and fuel we need and help fix the planet.)

People will always be able to turn to organizations like the BioBricks Foundation, an open source entity that provides all comers with Lego-like DNA parts to encode certain vital functions in cells, but, much like Linux-based OS platforms in the computing world have struggled to even make a dent in Microsoft’s and Apple’s mindshare, it will be tough to compete against the behemoths of the synthetic biology world. One can only hope that the government, or a qualified third party, will ensure that parity remains and that advances in medicine and biology not be significantly hindered by one, or many, corporations.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Biotech, Uncategorized

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