Friday, May 28, 2010

Synthetic Life...sort of

Comic by: Nate Beeler Taken from:

A research team led by Dr Craig Venter of the J Craig Venter Institute(JCVI) in Maryland and California, have successfully created the first Self-Replicating, Synthetic Bacterial Cell, Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. (Follow the link above or click HERE to read the Institute's official press release.)

While technically correct, I think the over emphasis being placed on the word synthetic in every headline and article about this story gives the average reader the wrong impression. While Dr. Venter's group has achieved something amazing and ground breaking, this so called synthesized life form is not the sc-fi micro-monster that most main stream reporting implies it to be. I'll explain.

Researchers created this "synthetic" cell by first digitally replicating the entire genome of an existing bacteria, M. Mycoides. That digital copy was then artificially synthesized using a sequencer and inserted into another existing species of bacterium whose own genome had been removed, Mycoplasma capricolum. The Mycoplasma in turn followed the new genetic "Software" it had received and turned itself into a M. Mycoides cell, ultimately resulting in the creation of, "Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0", the worlds first "synthetically" created self-replicating cell.

In other words, the only part of the cell that was "artificial" was the genome it received, which was in fact just a copy of an existing genome from a separate species of bacteria. Point being, JCVI-syn 1.0 is not some entirely new and artificially created species of anything as most mainstream articles seem to imply.

But this is an important advancement regardless of the details. Not only could artificially produced bacteria be engineered to carry out worth while tasks like reducing some of the damage to the environment by capturing Carbon monoxide, as suggested by Dr. Venter In an article from the BBC. But the steps that were necessary to successfully synthesize and implant the genome of one species to another, creating a viable copy of the original. Means more exacting work can begin on understanding the genomes themselves, as stated by Dr Venter in the JCVI press release: "We can now begin working on our ultimate objective of synthesizing a minimal cell containing only the genes necessary to sustain life in its simplest form. This will help us better understand how cells work."

Links and Additional Content

First, if you did not click through to read the article from the BBC should do so now, it has loads of info on this story including video of Dr Venter as well as a Q&A section and was my primary scource of info on this subject outside of the JCVI press release which you should also go read.

Next, Dr. Venter's TED talk video. (more on TED another day)

Video posted by Youtube user:TedtalksDirector

Image Credit:Nate Beeler

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