Synthetic Life

Posted by in Best Of, Intriguing

Scientists build synthetic bacteria! ‘Artificial Life’ breakthrough announced by scientists!  Headlines like these make the scientist in me quite exhilarated!  In my mind, this is achieve is equivalent in magnitude as the lunar landing.  It represents the pinnacle of decades of molecular biology refined to produce a final, discernable, product….the synthesized bacteria.  And this achievement deserves it due credit.

Before I can better explain my admiration for their accomplishments, I’m gonna give a crash course in molecular biology and gene therapy.  Gene therapy is the general field of science where we artificially insert/alter/remove specific strands of DNA in a target cell so that that cell will now express, or not express, a gene of interest.   Gene Therapy is not a new concept.  In fact we have successfully utilized it for over forty years now.  All the way back to the early 1970’s, scientists successfully implemented a gene to produce the protein insulin, originally derived from rats, in bacteria.  By successfully doing so, we were able to use natural biological processess to produce vast quantities of the protein, allowing us to no longer be reliant on other more limited sources such as cow insulin. (Here is a virtual lab to better visual the process). I imagine any diabetic would be very appreciative of this scientific breakthrough.

Dr. J. Craig Venter, and his team members, have taken gene therapeutics to new heights by artificially inserting an entire genome into a host bacteria cell so that it completely replaces all of the host cell’s DNA.  In a recent publication, they describe their process of creating this synthetic bacteria.  They did so in a very incremental fashion, by selectively replacing their synthesized DNA, which were first created through computer simulation and then produced within the petri dish.  For further background information I find the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal articles to be the best.

In addition to the insertion of particular genes of interest, such as the required machinery for normal metabolic processes and cellular replication, they also incorporated “junk” DNA.  It’s called junk DNA because it offers no functional benefit to the cell itself, however it provides additional value to Venter’s team.  First, having these specifically designed regions of useless DNA, they can then create probes that perfectly complement these strands of DNA, allowing them to verify they have indeed replaced the host DNA with their synthetic versions.  Second, for patentable reasons, they have created “codes” within the DNA to ensure no one uses their bacterial cells without giving them compensation for their work.  View it as a biological equivalent to anti-counterfeit methods.

So why is this important?  What advantages does this have over just doing normal gene therapy in “natural” cells, such as E. Coli?

First of all, now that we have created a completely self-sustaining life form (aka it can grow and replicate completely by itself), all scientists need to do is tweak this cell to suit their interests.  One group may add an additionally genes that make their cell quickly metabolize  oils, which can then be used to clean oil spills.  Another group can create a cell that converts CO2 to sugars and other polysaccharides, simultaneously decreasing atmospheric CO2 while also producing food.

With such a construct, we can be more certain and consistent with our manipulations.  However this increased control isn’t as beneficial as the second advantage.  By creating a completely artificial construct, scientists are able to minimize potential risks and unwanted outcomes.  Not only will scientists insert genes to make the cell better at what they are intended to do, they can, and most certainly will, insert genes that will make these cells susceptible to common drugs or other normally non-toxic molecules.  These “suicide genes” are viewed as a failsafe, to ensure that we can always maintain control over it’s growth.  (In fact, suicide genes are already being used in human clinical trials for a disease called Graft versus Host Disease). Returning to the hypothetical oil spill, what do we do after the bacteria as consumed all of the oil?  We are left with trillions of bacteria that are designed to keep on growing.  Now, we can douse the cells with our normally non-toxic molecule that will cause the cells to die.

Essentially, Dr. Venter and his team have created a very effective cellular scaffold that can then be manipulated by other scientists for their specific needs.  Recognizing the financial potential of their product, they have submitted multiple patents with the attempts to make money off of their discovery.  Unfortunately I don’t believe they will earn the patent because although their result is remarkable, the process they used to create this cell isn’t novel.  The SmartPlanet article takes expands upon these opinions and provides additional insight into the implications of awarding Dr. Venter a patent.  And if for some god awful reason you enjoy reading patent law, here it is.

Similar to Neil Armstrong’s famous lunar quote, although this step is only one small step for man,  it is one giant leap for mankind.  This moment in history will be remembered as the beginning of synthetic life.  Who knows what we will see develop from it within the next 20 years.  I, for one, look forward to it.