What yesterday was fiction today manifests truly.
A rather poetic way of putting it, but I believe that the momentous occasion this article pertains to deserves it. This is a moment that future historians and students will look back on. Whether their rearward glances will contain regret or admiration, only time will tell. But for now, we’ve got this to chew on:
Man has become God.
Or at least a certain group of men have. On May 20, Craig Venter and a team of top scientists made an announcement: the world’s first synthetic life form – a bacterium with a genome that is completely man made – has been created. The cell, dubbed Mycoplasma laboratorium, has been worked on by Venter’s crew for almost fifteen years, and it’s finally here. The cell, which takes physical components from a preexisting cell, but has a genome that is completely man made, has already replicated itself over a billion times.
Before this achievement, the longest synthesized sequence numbered about 30,000 pairs. The first chromosome attempted by his crew, that of the Mycoplasma genitalium genus, the smallest naturally occurring genome: 580,000 pairs. The final product: over 1,000,000 base pairs.
And that’s still a comparatively tiny genome. Damn, nature, you scary.
So how did they do it?
Venter’s group started with a very basic genome, that of the Mycoplasma genome. They began to eliminate genes, figuring out which ones were absolutely necessary to life. And after determining the Minimal Genome, they began to create the world’s first man-made functional DNA sequence. The team used machines that produced DNA sequences up to 80 nucleotides long, but seeing as they eventually produced a genome 1,000,000 nucleotides long, you can see why this process took upwards of a decade. Venter explains the attitude his team took towards the process: “When we look at life forms, we see them as fixed entities. But they change from second to second. And life is basically a software process; our genetic code is our software, and our cells are dynamically, constantly, reading that code.” In a way, what Venter’s group did was change the operating system of the cell when they replaced its natural DNA with their own hand-crafted stuff.
And speaking of hand-crafted, this man-made genome is built to order. When working with such small bacteria, contamination is a big issue; someone sneezes in the lab, and you’ve got ten thousand new lifeforms, ready to be misidentified as your man-made masterpiece. So the crew over at Venter’s included a couple of “easter eggs”, including a functional html website in code, names, and even philosophical quotes in the code. These “watermarks,” as Venter calls them, make misidentification almost impossible.
But what’s really astounding is what this project means to us. The institute plans to use this achievement in producing biofuels, food on a larger scale, and even vaccines and medicines, much like E. Coli is altered to produce insulin and human growth hormone. These achievements have prevented disease and death in thousands suffering from diabetes or growth instability patterns. Since the genome for this kind of organism is completely artificial, it would be much simpler to simply include DNA that produces these kinds of necessities instead of having to inject it into plasmids and hoping that bacteria incorporate it when they undergo cell division. Geneticist Vyacheslav Tarantul said that this kind of cell would probably be more efficient than current bacteria used to do these kind of jobs, as it would have a genome geared to do only one thing. In this way, the man-made genome may prove to be a saving grace for mankind.
Unfortunately, Mycoplasma lboratorium may have negative effects as well. Among these are claims that because it is now possible to create completely synthetic genomes, governments and terrorists may create biological weapons, like cells that produce hydrogen cyanide or even sarin. The National Farmers Union also say that the cell may have a negative impact on the food industry, and that “the synthetic life form poses a risk to humankind and the environment.”
For now, though, the cell only subsists on extremely rich substances where it is grown, and since it hasn’t been subject to millions of years of evolution and can only infect goats, it poses no real threat to mankind as of yet. Critics say, however, that future man-made genomes can easily be tweaked to replicate behavior of parasites and infectious bacteria.
Deadly disease or answer to pleas, the changes brought about by Venter’s team will be monumental. According to Venter, creating single celled eukaryotes is very viable, as chromosomes can be transferred “across kingdoms”, but creating life on the scale of animals, even insects, will not happen within his lifetime. Sorry to all of you Jurassic Park fans out there, but dinosaurs are out of the question. As for the rest, we’ll just have to see.