Feb 082011

The World's First Synthetic Organism

A research team, led by Craig Venter of America’s J. Craig Venter Institute (JVCI),

has successfully produced the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. Called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 the synthetic cell is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome. The resulting bacterium could be regarded as the first truly synthetic organism. The researchers now hope to be able to explore the machinery of life, and to engineer bacteria designed for specific purposes such as producing drugs, biofuels or other useful chemicals.

“This is the first synthetic cell that’s been made, and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer,” said Venter. “This becomes a very powerful tool for trying to design what we want biology to do. We have a wide range of applications [in mind].”

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Jan 082011
J. Craig Venter
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TO CREATE life is the prerogative of gods. Deep in the human psyche, whatever the rational pleadings of physics and chemistry, there exists a sense that biology is different, is more than just the sum of atoms moving about and reacting with one another, is somehow infused with a divine spark, a vital essence. It may come as a shock, then, that mere mortals have now made artificial life.

Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor (see article). Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.

That ability would prove mankind’s mastery over nature in a way more profound than even the detonation of the first atomic bomb. The bomb, however justified in the context of the second world war, was purely destructive. Biology is about nurturing and growth. Synthetic biology, as the technology that this and myriad less eye-catching advances are ushering in has been dubbed, promises much. In the short term it promises better drugs, less thirsty crops (see article), greener fuels and even a rejuvenated chemical industry. In the longer term who knows what marvels could be designed and grown?

On the face of it, then, artificial life looks like a wonderful thing. Yet that is not how many will view the announcement. For them, a better word than “creation” is “tampering”. Have scientists got too big for their boots? Will their hubris bring Nemesis in due course? What horrors will come creeping out of the flask on the laboratory bench?

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Jun 212010
The various levels of the scientific classific...
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Synthetic biology can mean reconstructing organisms, redesigning biology, or recreating life—and each of these uses has different implications.

The J. Craig Venter Institute has successfully synthesized an entire bacterial genome and transplanted it into a different bacterial cell. That cell then reproduced, replicating the synthetic genome in all its progeny. Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, or “Synthia” as it has become known, is an enormous technical achievement and brings the first chapter of synthetic biology to a close—a chapter in which the tools of genomic synthesis have been developed and proven. But as Venter himself has pointed out, this is not life from scratch. Other than inserting some genomic “watermarks” to sign their creation, Venter’s team closely followed nature’s pre-existing blueprints in designing their genome. The real act of creation is yet to come.

“Synthetic biology” is a catch-all label liberally applied to a host of methods for designing and constructing living things. Given the term’s multiple definitions, one of Synthia’s most immediately useful applications may be to place the achievement it represents within the context of synthetic biology’s various flavors, in order to clarify what the creation of artificial life might actually mean.

Reconstructing an organism

Synthia is a reconstruction of a living thing. Venter and his colleagues wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to synthesize an entire genome indistinguishable in function and identical in every way to its natural counterpart (except for the additional watermarks). By increasing the power and widening the scope of synthesis to encompass an entire genome, Venter and his team may well have enabled a whole host of future discoveries. However, because Synthia is a copy of an existing bacterium, it gives us little clue as to the actual potential for designing organisms in the future. Synthia is primarily a proof of concept. The next challenge is to design every aspect of an organism’s genome by mixing and matching any genes found in nature.

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May 262010
John Sulston
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A top UK scientist who helped sequence the human genome has said efforts to patent the first synthetic life form would give its creator a monopoly on a range of genetic engineering.

Professor John Sulston said it would inhibit important research.

US-based Dr Craig Venter led the artificial life form research, details of which were published last week.

Prof Sulston and Dr Venter clashed over intellectual property when they raced to sequence the genome in 2000.

Craig Venter led a private sector effort which was to have seen charges for access to the information. John Sulston was part of a government and charity-backed effort to make the genome freely available to all scientists.

“The confrontation 10 years ago was about data release,” Professor Sulston said.

“We said that this was the human genome and it should be in the public domain. And I’m extremely glad we managed to pull this out of the bag.”

‘Range of techniques’

Now the old rivals are at odds again over Dr Venter’s efforts to apply for patents on the artificially created organism, nicknamed Synthia. The team outlined the remarkable advance last week in the prestigious journal Science.

But Professor Sulston, who is based at the University of Manchester, said patenting would be “extremely damaging”.

“I’ve read through some of these patents and the claims are very, very broad indeed,” Professor Sulston told BBC News.

“I hope very much these patents won’t be accepted because they would bring genetic engineering under the control of the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). They would have a monopoly on a whole range of techniques.”

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