Last month, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) announced the creation of a replicating “synthetic” bacterial cell – or, in other words, they may have created the world’s first synthetic life form.
The team synthesized a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome about 1 million base pairs (bp) long from about 1,000 fragments that were each some 1,000 bp in length. Gene foundry Blue Heron fabricated the genome from basic biochemicals based on digital sequences, and assembled it in an Escherichia coli cell. The team then transplanted the genome into a third organism, Mycoplasma capricolum, the DNA of which was destroyed in the experiment. The cells began multiplying in culture, expressing the genes encoded only in the synthetic DNA – signifying what could arguably be synthetic life.
And argument is what ensued – predictably, since the achievement was pre-announced less than a year ago (see the September 1, 2009 LRBJ*), and foreseeable from the time the program was launched in 2007. So when Nature asked eight synthetic-biology experts about the implications for science and society, rival scientists sniffed that the synthetic cell “does not quite constitute a ‘synthetic cell’ by my definition” (Steen Rasmussen, Professor of Physics, University of Southern Denmark). At the same time, bioethicists fretted that “Nobody can be sure about the consequences of making new forms of life, and we must expect the unexpected and the unintended” (Mark Bedau, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, Reed College, Oregon).
Friends of the Earth called for a stop to research until regulations are in place, and ETC Group (which cleverly named the then-uncreated organism “Synthia” in 2007) warned that “Craig Venter is handing this powerful technology to the world’s most irresponsible and environmentally damaging industry by partnering with the likes of BP and Exxon” (see the June 23, 2009 LRBJ*). The Vatican viewed the results as “positive,” before pointedly adding an injunction to “never forget that there is only one creator” (hint: not Venter). Meanwhile the White House called for a commission to study the implications.
Venter himself deflected the question, telling CNN it was a “living self-replicating cell” with “no genetic ancestors… whose DNA was made chemically and designed in the computer.” CNN’s response – “Some critics suggest you shouldn’t make life from a computer” – helped illustrate the profound vacuity of mainstream media on this topic.
So, did the JCVI create life? While the question is a philosophical and linguistic morass, for what it’s worth, we’d say the answer is yes. Although the first step was a cell with a synthetic genome rather than a “synthetic cell,” all of its progeny sprung from lab chemicals. Even if the initial M. capricolum cell was once alive, it was certainly not living with its DNA destroyed. And the synthetic DNA was not alive before it was patched into sequence by Blue Heron and the JCVI team. By combining two collections of non-living biomolecules and creating something capable of metabolism and self-replication, the JCVI set in motion a process that must die to end. However, as monumental as JCVI’s achievement is, it will soon be yesterday’s news. In practical terms, it may have manufactured life but did not even attempt to “design” or “control” life, as the genome it used has only cosmetic differences from M. mycoides’ natural genetic code. But designing novel genes is already common, and designer genes will certainly be put into future synthetic cells. In sum, this achievement represents both the culmination of many incremental steps (and the first of many more) on a spectrum of human-created life that will almost certainly advance beyond the point of dispute in coming years, and many people will always regard this as the watershed moment.
So what will the reception and impact of this work be? “Living” technologies ranging from organic chemistry to in-vitro fertilization have met huge initial ethical opposition, but ultimately lived or died on their merits (see the April 28, 2009 LRBJ*). Synthetic biology’s value will be determined by the benefit brought by products like biofuels and medicines from Synthetic Genomics, Gevo, Codexis, Amyris, and dozens of other firms using the technology (see the December 8, 2009 LRBJ*). Today’s “Synthia” cost $30 million to create. But the history of past technologies indicates that she will seem quaintly simple and exorbitantly expensive when costs plummet (see the February 10, 2009 LRBJ*), finance soars (see the August 25, 2009 LRBJ*), patenting battles begin (see the June 23, 2009 LRBJ*), and commercial success is widespread (see the report “Synthetic Biology’s Commercial Roadmap”) a few years hence.
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