Humans on a quest to
April 2, 2008
A quest to create life out of synthetics
New science spurs high hopes, worry
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It is science so new that even Harvard does
not yet offer a formal course in it, although
some of the field's pioneering research has
been done at the university as well as down
the avenue at MIT.
Sometimes called "genetic engineering on
steroids," synthetic biology is a fuzzily-
defined but fast-emerging science that some
believe will transform genetic approaches
to research in medicine, energy, ecology,
agriculture, and more in the coming decades.
At heart, it is about building living entities
from lifeless chemicals.
Instead of just modifying existing organisms
- as genetic engineers have done for 30 years -
synthetic biologists are itching to build all-
new life forms from artificial DNA.
"The idea is to synthesize DNA in an organ-
ized way, so we don't have to rely on nature
to make useful things."
Imagined uses include pollution-gobbling arti-
ficial microbes, "living" computers made of
biocomponents, synthetic body cells pro-
grammed to hunt tumors, eco-dwellings grown
literally from seed, and even roses rigged with
genetic "switches" that cause them to bloom
and exude perfume on your birthday.
But synthetic biology inspires dread among
those convinced it will allow terrorists to
easily assemble smallpox-like viruses and
other bioweapons. Also alarming to some
detractors is that the science may confer on
practitioners the most awesome power of
all - that of creating life.
J. Craig Venter - the razzle-dazzle researcher-
entrepreneur who played a key role in sequenc-
ing the human genome - announced earlier this
year that his scientific team had assembled the
entire genetic structure of a bacterium from
off-the-shelf chemical components.
That is just a baby step from forging synthetic
life, a feat Venter expects to accomplish by the
end of this year.
"If our plan succeeds, a new creature will have
entered the world," Venter recently told reporters.
While critics warn of dangers, synthetic biolo-
gists see their work as just common-sense appli-
cation of engineering principles to the assembly
of biological entities.
Too much of genetic engineering, they say, has
involved tweezing a strand of DNA here or
inserting a bit of DNA there, and then waiting
to see what happens. What is needed are stan-
dardized parts and assembly procedures so that
swaths of DNA and other genetic structures can
be created without the biological equivalent of
constantly re-inventing the wheel.
"Scientists are making strands of DNA that have
never existed, so there is nothing to compare
them to. There's no agreed mechanisms for safety,
"I see it as a bit like the 'matter compiler' on Star
Trek," ... referring to a device on the fictional
Starship Enterprise that made new objects out
of basic atoms.
While critical early work is quietly ongoing in
the engineering of future fuels and pharmaceuti-
cals, much of the limelight is falling on Venter's
plan to create a new life form.
In January, Venter and his team at the J. Craig
Venter Institute ... grabbed worldwide headlines
upon creating the entire genome of the Myco-
plasma bacterium, a feat accomplished by using
special synthesizing machines to churn out 101
custom-built DNA "cassettes," or snippets, each
representing about 1 percent of the bacterium's
These, in turn, were stitched into larger pieces,
using bacteria and yeast as natural production
lines; until finally the snippets were placed in
the correct order - the first true copy of an entire
"This entire process started with four bottles of
chemicals, containing what's represented by A,
G, C, and T," Venter told reporters, referring to
the chemical building blocks of DNA.
Venter has predicted that sometime this year his
team will implant the synthetic chromosome into
a living microbe, then "boot" it up - effectively
creating an entirely new organism.
That will mark an extraordinary milestone for
"The future of life depends not only in our ability
to understand and use DNA, but also in creating
new synthetic life forms," Venter said in a recent
academic lecture delivered on the BBC. "That
is, life which is forged not by Darwinian evolu-
tion, but created by human intelligence."
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