Craig Venter on the "synthetic cell"

Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 3:05 AM Bookmark and Share
I received an email a few weeks back from a reader suggesting I do a post or two on Craig Venter's recent accomplishment taking a bacterial cell and swapping in a fully synthetic genome, essentially making a new bacterial species.  It's a great suggestion, as I think what Venter and his colleagues have done qualifies as some smokin' hot, kick-ass science.  Unfortunately, I've not had much time to read up on the details, as I've been a bit busy with a conference and some pressing thesis work I need to get done (like yesterday).

As it happens, I just now stumbled across an opportunity to (at least briefly) touch on the subject. Check out  this gem of an interview with Craig Venter.


If you'd first like a sampler of what's in the video, below are a few selections that caught my attention (though I strongly recommend you watch it in it's entirety at least twice... maybe more!).

When I was first asked whether I found all this amazing, scary or both, I went with both, leaning more towards amazing than scary.  Now that I've looked into it further, I'm squarely at amazing and so far from scary it's almost scary! Venter and his colleagues seem to have put a great deal of effort into subjecting their research plans to serious ethical considerations, as mentioned briefly below, making sure their synthetic cell was too crippled and dependent on specialized media to thrive outside of the lab. Not at all surprising, but worth mentioning.

So what's the big deal here? I mean, yes it sounds cool - but what's the point? How will this impact my daily life in the coming years?  To answer that question we first need to be clear about what exactly they've done: very briefly, they've slapped together a genome sequence in a computer (yup, just a string of ...AGATCCACTAC... only it received a bit more forethought than my sequence) using the genome of a real organism as a starting point.  Then, they made the DNA using some advanced biochemistry and custom instrumentation (think of the expensive instruments used to read DNA sequences, but working in reverse). Next, they took that genome and used it to replace the genome of a bacterial cell. After that, they let their little unicellular Frankenstein go about doing it's own thing, happily reproducing itself in a lab somewhere.

While most of the media focus is on little Frankenstein, the real gem here are the techniques and technology that made it all possible.  As far as making a new cell goes, they didn't quite go there. They tweaked the genome a bit on the computer, made the genome (which really is an impressive accomplishment) and handed it off to an existing cell.  To use Venter's computer analogy, what they did was something like the cellular version of reformatting a computer running Debian linux, and replacing the operating system with a copy of Damn Small Linux.  Not a big change to say, Windows, and definitely not rebuilding a new computer from scratch.

Still, there are many reasons why their accomplishment is darn cool.  First, here's Venter with the big picture....
Interviewer: What do you ultimately hope to do with a method like this?
Venter: Well, this is an important step we think both scientifically and philosophically. It's certainly changed my views of definitions of life, and how life works. It's pretty stunning when you just replace the DNA software in a cell and the cell instantly starts reading that new software -- starts making a whole different set of proteins -- and within a short while all the characteristics of the first species disappear and a new species emerges from this software that controls that cell going forward. When we look at lifeforms we see them as sort of fixed entities. But this shows in fact how dynamic they are, that they change from second to second. And, that life is basically a result of an information process -- a software process -- our genetic code is our software. Our cells are dynamically, constantly reading that genetic code making new proteins, the proteins make the other cellular components, and that's what we see.

From a more practical perspective, our own success as a species has been in large part due to our ability to mix and match the DNA of different organisms for our benefit.  We've advanced from simple selective breeding of livestock and crops, interspecific hybridization, and basic artificial selection up through the relatively recent discovery of DNA and the ability to alter genetic material directly.  Venter et al's new techniques are another big step in that same direction.  This may have many implications, such as this example mentioned by Venter:
Perhaps the most important, immediate application is ... we're already working at the Venter Institute and working with Novartis to try and make new vaccines very quickly. We think we can shorten the process by 99% for making the flu vaccine each year by using these new synthetic techniques.
For flu and other pathogens with relatively high rates of evolution, and for some newly emerging infectious disease, we're limited in how quickly we can mass produce vaccines. This is perhaps common knowledge following last years swine flu pandemic, but increasing our response time to vaccinate against emerging infectious disease by an order of magnitude or two could literally save millions of human lives.

Finally, they've also done some pretty cool things that have little to do with the frontiers of science and technology.  Nothing wrong with having a little fun while you work, right?
We've developed a new code for writing english language, other languages, with punctuation and numbers into the genetic code. In the first watermark [in the new genome] we actually have this code that needs to be decoded for people to read the rest. We even have a website built into the genetic code that if people solve it they can let us know that they've been able to read it.

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