Team from the J. Craig Venter Institute succeds in creating a new self-replicating bacterium.

May was the month when a team from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) published a long awaited paper in Science. The paper reported how the Institute’s team has synthesized a bacterial genome from stock chemicals and transplanted this genome into another bacterium, to create a new self-replicating bacterium. They called their creation a ‘synthetic cell’.

To the outsider this might seem like any other obscure scientific result. But its different, for it is likely to be of profound significance to the shared challenges that societies all over the world face today.

Roughly put, the JCVI team demonstrated the ability to create essentially any artificial genome they want, and successfully make a natural bacterium reproduce and behave according to the information contained in the artificial genome. Using a familiar though insufficient analogy, this amounts to putting an artificially designed operating system like Microsoft Windows into ‘natural computer’ with its own natural software, but which afterwards follows the instructions in Windows.

We all know from the performance of Microsoft operating systems how difficult it is to design and then implement viable software. Doing the analogous thing with bacterial genomes is even harder. Thus, the achievement of the Venter team is obviously a huge milestone in biotechnology, even considering just its technical premises. However, its ultimate significance will come from the lessons about life and the perspectives in manipulating life it seems to offer — just a few examples of which are the design of synthetic organisms that transform CO2 into methane, produce medicines inexpensively, or purify water.

However, there are also important ethical and societal issues to consider, as well as scientific reservations about how ‘big’ a scientific leap Venter’s team has actually made. For instance, should it be possible to patent new forms of life, just like we can patent an operating system? And does Venter’s synthetic cell really qualify as creating life, since the ‘hardware’ in which the ‘software’ was installed  was a natural living bacterium?

The scientific community for the most part agrees that the primary success is a technical one: first the synthesis from scratch of a very long DNA polymer and second, swapping out the natural DNA with the synthetic one.  The larger significance of this technical achievement is debatable and unknown.  Because of this, there is an opportunity to initiate a direct dialog between researchers and the public about this type of research.

Below you find a series of links through which you may learn more about the achievements Venter’s team as well as many comments from his scientific peers.

COMMENTS FROM ISSP SCIENTISTS

THE POWER AND THE PITFALLS

By Mark Bedau, Professor of philosophy and humanities, Reed College, Oregon

The “synthetic cell” created by Craig Venter and his colleagues (D. G. Gibson et al. Science doi:10.1126/science.1190719; 2010) is a normal bacterium with a prosthetic genome. As the genome is only about 1% of the dry weight of the cell, only a small part of the cell is synthetic. But the genome is pivotal because it contains the hereditary information that controls so much of a cell’s structure and function.

The ability to make prosthetic genomes marks a significant advance over traditional genetic engineering of individual genes. The prosthetic genome contains all the information in the natural genome that it supplants, except for a few minor differences (for example, some ‘watermarks’ were added). There is no technical reason to stop there; any of the information in a prosthetic genome can be changed. Tomorrow’s synthetic cell could be radically unlike anything encountered in the history of life.

Putting prosthetic genomes into bacteria raises important scientific and societal issues, beyond those raised by biotechnology in general and genetic engineering in particular. I will mention just four.

First, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to learn about life. Having complete control over the information in a genome provides a fantastic opportunity to probe the remaining secrets of how it works.

Second, even the simplest forms of life have unpredictable, emergent properties. These properties are often useful and we want to control them, but their unpredictability presents a conundrum for traditional engineering. We must develop and perfect methods for engineering emergence.

Third, these new powers create new responsibilities. Nobody can be sure about the consequences of making new forms of life, and we must expect the unexpected and the unintended. This calls for fundamental innovations in precautionary thinking and risk analysis.

Finally, a prosthetic genome hastens the day when life forms can be made entirely from nonliving materials. As such, it will revitalize perennial questions about the significance of life – what it is, why it is important and what role humans should have in its future. Although these questions are controversial and difficult to resolve, society will gain from the effort.

‘BOTTOM-UP’ WILL BE MORE TELLING

By Steen Rasmussen, Professor of physics, University of Southern Denmark

Implementing a synthetic genome in a modern cell is a significant milestone in understanding life today. But the radical ‘top-down’ genetic engineering that Venter’s team has done does not quite constitute a “synthetic cell” by my definition.

Both the top-down and bottom-up camps focus on the essence of life. 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.

The heritable information (genes) is of course also crucial to the bottom-up approach. But without energy, clearly no life is possible, so a metabolism capable of fuelling the life process is just as necessary. A container also seems unavoidable: the energetics and information need to support each other’s production, which can happen most conveniently in some sort of corral, such as a membrane.

So bottom-up scientists believe that constructing life using different materials and blueprints will teach us more about the nature of life than will reproducing life as we know it.

Owing to these different foci and the resulting variations in methods, the two communities have interacted little until recently. They are moving closer – a variety of joint research activities now have team members from both approaches. There is also more overlap because of successes in both camps. The synthetic genome is certainly one such.

More about Steen’s research (in danish): www.videnskab.dk

LINKS
Links in Danish