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Unstrange Phenomena

20 May 2010

Ground-Breaking King of the Lab: Venter Creates Synthetic DNA

Synthetic DNA

From Denny: Frankenstein move over 'cause a new kind of scientist is in town: a Vietnam era ex-Navy guy gone micro-organism tech. Scientists are crowing they have succeeded in creating a living cell from DNA synthesized in a lab. It isn't yet a synthetic organism but give them time.

It is just me or is it just a bit creepy to create life in a lab? Can we all imagine a generation from now of the typical high school kid creating synthetic life in their lab? Of course, people of my mind are wondering where this may go since science has never owned a great track record on exercising wisdom in their achievements.

J. Craig Venter, creator of synthetic genome

Who is the scientist behind this scientific curiosity? Craig Venter is his name, a name that draws a lot of unfriendly fire in the science community. He sure has his detractors but even they admit he does think big.

What Did Venter Do?

Venter and his team have worked on this synthetic life idea since 1995. They utilized four chemical DNA constituents - called A, T, C and G - to form a synthetic genome. They inserted that synthetic genome into a cell, giving the cell orders as it grew and multiplied.

When you have worked on a project for that many years it's obvious there were a number of high hurdles to overcome. Venter said his first question was to figure out how to make a very big piece of DNA. You see - for those of us not in the DNA biz he explained - most chemical synthesis techniques will stop working once you arrive at a few thousand DNA letters. Great, so how to solve that problem? He discovered he could not copy a whole genome so he decided to do it in parts - sort of like the old adage of "the ant eating the elephant" solution. Venter said, "We wanted to make something close to a million."

How Venter Did It

Solving that chemistry issue took him most of the last 15 years of his life. How did they solve that problem? He and his team placed smaller fragments of synthesized DNA into bacterial cells where they huddled together into a tight group like a football team, becoming larger fragments. The second stage of the solution was to then insert the now enlarged fragments into yeast cells so the yeast cells could slap them all on the back making everyone fast friends. Read that as the yeast cells were successful at stitching those larger fragments all together like a quilt. Hmmm... brings up Frankenstein images, doesn't it? :)

And if that wasn't enough to solve, they still had to figure out how to transfer that huge chunk of DNA into a cell without fumbling said football and losing the game. They didn't want all their hard work to end up breaking as they transferred it. Venter also wanted to prove that he could transfer a working chromosome from one football team to another - like one species of bacteria to another.

Venter was crowned Creator God of Bacteria when he took the genome from a simple small cell bacteria, known by the impressive handle of Mycoplasma mycoides, and transferred it to another bacteria species (Mycoplasma capricolum). He will now be worshiped by very low life forms for at least a millennium - maybe longer.

You would think the new title of Creator God of Bacteria would have satisfied his scientist ego but no, Venter pressed on. He whipped out his science version of a copier and made an exact copy of the mycoides genome (think Football Team Red if your eyes are starting to glaze over at all the technicalities) in his lab and then transferred his synthetic genome into capricolum (think Football Team Blue).

Was it truly this easy? Wishing was not happening. To get the system to work correctly Venter and his team had to determine a more accurate DNA sequence for the mycoides genome (Football Team Red) and that detour journey took a number of years to figure out. This week, in the scientists' Holy Grail of journals, Science, Venter and his team got to scream their success from the rooftops.

Weighing in on the accomplishment is synthetic biologist from Boston University, Jim Collins, who claims this really isn't a new life form. He is saying basically what I've been thinking about this story is that "Its genome is a stitched together copy of the DNA of an organism that exists in nature."

While Collins concedes Venter has created something remarkable it still isn't the Holy Grail of creating life. "We don't know enough biology to create or synthesize life," says Collins. "I think we're far removed from understanding how would you build a truly artificial genome from scratch."

While it's cool that Venter has figured out how to control a cell's behavior by using DNA created in the lab it sure leaves us wondering about this new situation in our world. Bioethicists have yet another tough task ahead as they wrestle with the morality.

Synthetic genome chart

Ethical Science Dilemmas

Another scientist to give his opinion is Gregory Kaebnick, a scholar at the Hasting Center, a bioethics think tank. Kaebnick is concerned about this new field of synthetic biology. What happens if any synthetic organisms make their escape from the lab and run wild, creating chaos? Does this cross the line where humans start playing God before they are fully grounded in wisdom? The bacteria crowd might be taking back Venter's crown as King of the Lab.

What happens if organisms no longer evolve on their own as they always have? Kaebnick thinks this could be a troubling developmental change in our world. Pretty much sounds like an "all bets are off" scenario as the rules of the world as we know it could change drastically or subtly. No one knows.

Of course, Venter, ever the controversial Devil's Advocate, believes his work is the very reason we should be exploring this area of creating life. "We decided that writing new biological software and creating new species, we could create new species to what we want them to do, not what they evolved to do," says Venter.

Venter's new company is called Synthetic Genomics. What he wants to do with these newly created species is make fuels and new vaccines. Currently, Venter and his colleagues have a monopoly on the techniques for genomic manipulation. They are also handsomely funded. There are other competitors working in related fields. The world of synthetic micro-organisms is inching closer and closer into colliding with the world of what we know and changing into the world of possibilities to cheer and fear.

*** For a bio on Craig Venter and more about his institute: J. Craig Venter Institute

*** For his 2007 book, A life decoded: my genome, my life By J. Craig Venter, check out the Google reader preview of 62 pages.

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