Saturday, May 22, 2010

Breakthrough Bacteria with 100% Artificial Genes -- Another Coup For Craig Venter

At left is a photo of bacterial cells that have completely synthetic DNA. It is not a "synthetic cell" because they actually transplanted the artificial genes into a natural cell. That is, the technology to reproduce the rest of the cell's organs does not exist yet -- but we can synthesize the DNA, and the DNA can direct the synthesis of a daughter organisms.  Details are in Science.

The new organism is a synthetic version of  mycoplasma mycoides, which oddly is a parasite of goats and cows. The natural cell host was a closely related organism, mycoplasma capricolum, which causes pneumonia in goats. It seems these are quite small genomes, and that makes the task easier. 


Fans of Depth of Processing may remember my three previous posts on synthetic biology which mention Craig Venter and his institute. Venter sprang to prominence when he sequenced his own personal DNA with private funding at about the same time as the giant multi-national public effort finished. More recently he has made genetically engineered organisms for algae based power.  Venter has been waging a legal battle to get a patent on a synthetic organism, and anti-technology groups have been opposing him. 


The organism is dubbed "Synthia" and Venter's company Synthetic Genomics business plan focusses on what it is not. It does not contain scores of genes deemed non-essential. The hope is that new genes can be simply added to make the organism more useful industrially, pharmacologically or in energy production. This contrast with the conventional genetic engineering approach of putting new genes in a version of e coli. How much better a completely synthetic genome is, will be seen. If it actually permits a simpler more efficient organism, then it will be worth it.  The main feat in Venter's accomplishment was synthesizing so many base pairs without an error that disabled the organism. 


I view this development optimistically, and think what a great time to be alive and see this happening. I have little sympathy for those who think the synthetic biology is the source of some new flavor of evil. 


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