The Dawn of Synthetic Biology

Last week scientists announced the successful creation and replication of synthetic DNA in a living cell, a major breakthrough in the quest to create artificial life. It has been a fascinating watching the story develop and to examine the various scientific, ethical, religious, business, and patent law debates which have erupted since the announcement.

Wired | In a feat that is the culmination of two and a half years of tests and adjustments, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute inserted artificial genetic material — chemically printed, synthesized and assembled — into cells that were then able to grow naturally.

“We all had a very good feeling that it was going to work this time,” said Venter Institute synthetic biologist Daniel Gibson, co-author of the study published May 20 in Science. “But we were cautiously optimistic because we had so many letdowns following the previous experiments.”

On a Friday in March, scientists inserted over 1 million base pairs of synthetic DNA into Mycoplasma capricolum cells before leaving for the weekend. When they returned on Monday, their cells had bloomed into colonies.

“When we look at life forms, we see fixed entities,” said J. Craig Venter, president of the Institute, in a recent podcast. “But this shows in fact how dynamic they are. They change from second to second. And that life is basically the result of an information process. Our genetic code is our software.”

BBC | Dr Venter and his colleagues hope eventually to design and build new bacteria that will perform useful functions.

“I think they’re going to potentially create a new industrial revolution,” he said.

“If we can really get cells to do the production that we want, they could help wean us off oil and reverse some of the damage to the environment by capturing carbon dioxide.”

But critics say that the potential benefits of synthetic organisms have been overstated.

Dr Helen Wallace from Genewatch UK, an organisation that monitors developments in genetic technologies, told BBC News that synthetic bacteria could be dangerous.

“If you release new organisms into the environment, you can do more harm than good,” she said.

“By releasing them into areas of pollution, [with the aim of cleaning it up], you’re actually releasing a new kind of pollution.

“We don’t know how these organisms will behave in the environment.”

Dr Wallace accused Dr Venter of playing down the potential drawbacks.

“He isn’t God,” she said, “he’s actually being very human; trying to get money invested in his technology and avoid regulation that would restrict its use.”

CNN | The Vatican had praise Saturday for this week’s announcement that scientists had created the world’s first synthetic cell, calling it an “interesting result” that could help cure disease.

In an article Saturday, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano called it “important research” and “the work of high-quality genetic engineering.” But it said the scientists who created the cell had not created life, just “replaced one of its motors.”

The response may appear to mark a turn for the Vatican, but in fact the church does not officially oppose genetic engineering as long as the science avoids embryonic stem cells, cloning or anything else that fiddles too much with the re-creation of human life.

“Genetic engineering can do good: It is enough to think that it could heal chromosome-related diseases,” the article said.

However, scientists must “join courage with caution,” it said.

“They touch a very fragile territory where the environment and manipulation play a role that cannot be underestimated,” the article said.

Discover | Here in the United States, people are all atwitter about Craig Venter’s announcement last week of a new “synthetic cell,” and whether it constitutes creating life or simply a nifty new step in genetic engineering. Across the pond in the U.K., however, there are increasing rumblings of a more practical matter: Whether the patents that Venter is seeking to protect his work will bring a chill to genetic engineering research elsewhere.

“Dr Venter’s [team] has applied for patents on the methods it used to create the new organism, nicknamed Synthia, by transferring a bacterial genome built from scratch into the shell of another bacterium. Synthia’s genetic code contains four DNA ‘watermarks’, including famous quotations and the names of the scientists behind the research, that could be used to detect cases of unauthorised copying” [The Times].

Nobel winner John Sulston is the main man sounding the alarm (pdf); he argues that Venter is trying to obtain a “monopoly” on a range of genetic engineering techniques, which would prevent other researchers from freely experimenting with those methods. He’s also a familiar adversary to Venter. The two butted heads a decade ago when scientists were rushing to sequence the human genome.

Best of the web…

Indonesia Declares Logging Halt | Al Jazeera

Indonesia has announced a two-year moratorium on rainforest logging in return for up to $1bn in aid from Norway, which will help preserve forests.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s president, made the announcement on a visit to Oslo, the Norwegian capital, on Wednesday.

“We will … conduct a moratorium for two years where we stop the conversion of peat land and of forest,” Yudhoyono said at a joint press conference with Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian prime minister, a day before an international deforestation conference started in Oslo.

High-Tech Border Surveillance: A Costly Blundering Flop | Alternet

As part of a broad illegal immigration crackdown called the Secure Border Initiative, a seamless “virtual fence” launched in 2005 was supposed to be up and running by last year. Among other things, the project known as SBInet called for a vast surveillance system along the 2,000-mile Southwestern border capable of detecting immigrants, drug traffickers, and potential terrorists as they attempted to cross into the United States.

But at the current slow pace of construction, SBInet would take decades to complete. Only a 28-mile-long prototype is fully up and running in Arizona, to mixed reviews.

Sister Margaret’s Choice | New York Times

The excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride in Phoenix underscores all that to me feels morally obtuse about the church hierarchy. I hope that a public outcry can rectify this travesty.

Sister Margaret was a senior administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. A 27-year-old mother of four arrived late last year, in her third month of pregnancy. According to local news reports and accounts from the hospital and some of its staff members, the mother suffered from a serious complication called pulmonary hypertension. That created a high probability that the strain of continuing pregnancy would kill her.

Sister Margaret was a member of that committee. She declined to discuss the episode with me, but the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmstead, ruled that Sister Margaret was “automatically excommunicated” because she assented to an abortion.

“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” the hospital said in a statement. “This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee.”

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