May 23, 2010, 11:22 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

"I tell you, it's just the beginning"

So Venter’s artifical bacterium is finally upon us (Science paper). Economist article (not by my hand) here:

Like Shelley’s protagonist, Dr Venter and Dr Smith needed some spare parts from dead bodies to make their creature work. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, though, they needed no extra spark of Promethean lightning to give the creature its living essence. Instead they made that essence, a piece of DNA that carries about 1,000 genes, from off-the-shelf laboratory chemicals. The result is the first creature since the beginning of creatures that has no ancestor. What it is, and how it lives, depends entirely on a design put together by scientists of the J. Craig Venter Institute and held on the institute’s computers in Rockville, Maryland, and San Diego, California. When the first of these artificial creatures showed that it could reproduce on its own, the age of artificial life began.

The announcement is momentous. It is not unexpected. Dr Venter’s ambition to create a living organism from close to scratch began 15 years ago, and it has been public knowledge for a decade. After so much time, there is a temptation for those in the field to say “show us something we didn’t know.” Synthetic DNA is, after all, routinely incorporated into living things by academics, by biotech companies, even by schoolchildren. Dr Venter—a consummate showman—and the self-effacing Dr Smith (uncharacteristically in the foreground in the picture of the two above) have merely done it on a grand scale.

But if it is a stunt, it is a well conceived one. It demonstrates more forcefully than anything else to date that life’s essence is information. Heretofore that information has been passed from one living thing to another. Now it does not have to be. Non-living matter can be brought to life with no need for lightning, a vital essence or a god. And this new power will allow the large-scale manipulation of living organisms. Hitherto, genetic modification has been the work of apprentices and journeymen. This new step is, in the true and original sense of the word, a masterpiece. It is the demonstration that the practitioner has mastered his art.

Fine take from Ken Macleod (@amendlock)  in the Guardian:

Vitalism isn’t a doctrine of any major faith, besides new age theosophies and other forms of muddled thought. In my teens I caught the virus of vitalism from reading Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine – and was cured of it, ironically enough, by a creationist tract that extolled the wondrous complexity of cellular machinery: complex and wondrous enough, I realised, for life to need no other explanation. That tiny machine didn’t need even the tiniest ghost.

Synthetic life, then, creates no problems even for creationists (after all, it’s intelligently designed!) let alone more sophisticated theists. This won’t, of course, spare us the usual TV studio parade of clergy (why them?) asked to comment – though they may find it easier than usual to give answers less stupid than the questions.

More significant than the clerics are their secular successors, the ethicists – paid to worry so we don’t have to. They’re already on the case.

Jamais Cascio (@cascio) makes some useful distinctions. More responses, many with insight, curated at Practical Ethics (@ethicsinthenews) and a set of very worthwhile opinions at Nature (free pdf) in which Steen Rasmussen makes a useful distinction:

The radical ‘top-down’ genetic engineering that Venter’s team has done does not quite constitute a “synthetic cell” by my

The top-down community seeks to rewrite the genetics program running on the ‘hardware’ of the modern cell, as Venter and his colleagues have done. Bottom-up researchers, such as myself, aim to assemble life —  including the hardware and the program — as simply as possible, even if the result is different from what we think of as life.

There is so far nothing up at Rob Carlson’s Synthesis, but it will be worth checking when there is

(UPDATE: Here it is, and it was. This bit particularly pointed:

I doubt very much that the JCVI team, or the team at Synthetic Genomics, will be using this or any other genome in any economically interesting bug any time soon.  As I note in Chapter 8 of Biology is Technology, Jay Keasling’s lab and the folks at Amyris are playing with only about 15 genes.  And getting the isoprenoid pathway working (small by the Gibson et al standard but big by the everyone-else standard) took tens of person years and about as much investment (roughly ~$50 million in total by the Gates Foundation and investors) as Venter spent on synthetic DNA alone.  And then is Synthetic Genomics going to start doing metabolic engineering in a microbe that they only just sequenced and about which relatively little is known (at least compared with E. coli, yeast, and other favorite lab animals)?  Or they are going to redo this same genome synthesis project in a bug that is better understood and will serve as a platform or chassis?  Either way, really?  The company has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank to spend on this sort of thing, but I simply don’t understand what the present publication has to do with making any money.

End update.)

I spent a fair chunk of the past week with Rob’s book Biology is Technology (Amazon US|UK, sample here) and if you want to grok this development  in its fullness you would do well to do the same. For a different take with a lot to offer, check out Denise Caruso’s Intervention, too (Amazon US|UK).

Image from Tricia Helfer’s blog, used with thanks but no permission

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1 Comment so far
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I visited ETH Zurich last year, and part of the gig was a poster session with various post-grads working at the interface between biology and nanotech. The single most striking aspect was their total ease with the continuum of parts – you take all the tools so expensively created on the back of the silicon boom and get to work splicing this bit of cell energy transfer system with that bit of MEMS-based hardware. Information, atoms, energy. Absolutely enthralling.

Comment by Rupert G

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