Humans Create Synthetic Life

May 23, 2010

Science is undergoing the equivalent of the Cambrian explosion right now both metaphorically and literally. The summation of advances in different fields of science has created an exponential growth curve of our understanding and abilities so steep that we are propelled practically vertically into the skies above. With all the expanses in computer processing and medicine it is easy to overlook the speed at which the field of biology is expanding. This week, an article published in the journal Science has reminded many of us how advanced we are becoming in molecular biology.

Venter's Process

Craig Venter and his colleagues at the J. Craig Venter Institute have succeeded in synthesizing an entire genome that was implanted into a bacterial husk and lead to the creation of a small colony of man-made protozoans. The inserted DNA was from a different species of bacteria than the rest of the microbe yet caused the organism to transform into the species encoded by the DNA.  This marks the first time that a member of a species was created without ancestors. If you think genetically-modified food or organisms are a big deal, think about the implications of organisms with entirely synthesized genomes.

It’s very difficult to predict the implications and repercussions of new technologies but the potential benefits of this particular technique is massive. The scientists involved want to create an especially simplified template genome that has all the metabolic processes necessary to sustain life, so that they can later add whichever genes they choose for a multitude of purposes. This was the first step demonstrating that they can use a DNA sequence edited with computer software, synthesize it, and transform a bacteria into a different species with the digitally edited genome.

Some of the future implications for this include adding a gene for the metabolism of carbon dioxide. This would lead to bacteria capable of devouring carbon emissions from factories and power plants (maybe even the atmosphere). Other ideas include genes for creating pharmaceuticals or oil. Combine that with a gene to excrete the product and we could be using Craig Venter-patented bacteria to convert our landfills into gasoline (Exxon Mobile has invested $700 million with Venter already). Or, a modified bacteria with the opposite purpose could be used to devour oil slicks like the one in the Gulf before it bedaubs the coast.

"GloFish" are genetically modified pets already sold in pet stores.

This is only the start of what looks to be a new field in biology. Once we can apply this to eukaryotes, we will be able to synthesize new animals and plants. Forget about breeding dogs into new species (that is soo 20th century). Who’s to say we won’t be able to create our own dog with the characteristics of our choice instantly on our laptop? Send the DNA sequence code to the nearest laboratory and they’ll have your shitzdoodle delivered in no time.

Better yet, here’s to hoping I can have my children completely specialized to my own likings. Let’s add a couple inches to their height, eliminate any unnecessary  silent mutations or recessive diseases, brown hair, green eyes, +50 IQ points and **presto** little Robert Roman will have an expected life span of 130 years, good looks and a good brain to match. First stop, GATTACA!

Of course, there are those pesky ethical concerns that keep cropping up. Just like when people protested genetically-modified foods, which doubled our crop yields, now people are protesting against this. Ignoring the tremendous potential benefits, they point to religion and claim we are ‘playing God’ or worry that an evil scientist will create a superbug to destroy humanity. Their lack of evidence separates them from those actually conducting the research and is based solely on fear mongering.

The Human Genome

Craig Venter, the man in charge of much of this, has quite a repertoire for biological research. In the 90’s he criticized the Human Genome Project, a worldwide effort to map the human genome, for being too slow and instead started his own company that mapped it 3 years ahead of time. In 2007, with a team of researchers he mapped the first genome of an individual person: his own. He has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world twice. It’s my opinion that he will be remembered as one of the greatest minds of our generation.

Here’s a video of him talking about his research in 2008:

After this new accomplishment, it is suspected that he will synthesize a genome completely devised by human beings and unlike any species known to date. This new species is already patented and will possibly be named Mycoplasma laboratorium, although why one would need to establish a genus and species to an organism devised by man is beyond me. I assume that when we begin creating our own organisms, a new form of taxonomy will need to be devised and cladistics won’t be pertinent. M. laboratorium will probably be the aforementioned ‘simplest’ bacteria possible, and will serve as a blank slate to add other useful genes into.

In case you’re beginning to think we are reaching the limits of human technology, I posit that this is only the beginning. Imagine future synthetic life forms with genomes made of non-nucleotide molecules translating into structural components besides protein (carbon nanotubes would be nice). Perhaps people will devise inorganic life forms based on molecules other than carbon. Where will this research lead us a thousand years from now? Will humans use biology to better themselves, or will we integrate ourselves with computer systems and become silica-based “artificial life”? OK, that’s enough for now. These questions can be addressed in future blog posts.