Sunday, June 13, 2010

What Is Life Coming To?

Scientists May Have Created "The First Synthetic Cell."

ABC World News (5/20, story 4, 2:30, Sawyer) reported, "World renowned geneticist Craig Venter has been trying to unlock the mystery of life for 15 years." Now, it appears his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute has made "a major breakthrough in the quest" to harness that phenomenon: They've "created life from nonliving parts." That is, they developed "the first synthetic cell." Explaining that "astonishing" feat, Dr. Venter said, "Instead of having a genetic relative that it evolved from, the parent of this cell is a computer."

It is possible that one day, such cells "will make up designer organisms that can be programmed to do specific tasks like creating new biofuels or breaking down oil -- which would come in handy about now," CBS Evening News (5/20, story 3, 0:30, Couric) reported.

This week's breakthrough stems from a step that was taken some three years ago, when Dr. Venter was able to show that "the natural DNA from one bacterium could be inserted into another and that it would take over the host cell's operation," the New York Times (5/21, A17, Wade) reports. In 2009, "his team synthesized a piece of DNA with 1,080,000 bases." Now, according to the paper in Science, the team has found that the "synthetic DNA takes over a bacterial cell just as the natural DNA did, making the cell generate the proteins specified by the new DNA's genetic information in preference to those of its own genome."

In other words, the "donor genome reprogrammed the recipient cell, which went on to replicate and divide," the Washington Post (5/21, Brown) reports. "The result was new colonies of Mycoplasma mycoides." Notably, the "man-made copy of the genome that Mycoplasma mycoides produces naturally" was "not an exact duplicate," as 14 "of the bacterium's 850 genes were altered or deleted during the experiment -- 12 intentionally, two accidentally."

Nevertheless, Venter said the work "changes conceptually how I think about life." Other scientists, however, "characterize the experiment in less revolutionary terms," pointing out that "only the genome was synthetic; the recipient cell was equipped by nature and billions of years of evolution to make sense of the genes it received and turn them on."

What's more, "other researchers have made microorganisms that can achieve" certain remarkable "feats," the Los Angeles Times (5/21, Maugh, Roan) notes. But, a "purpose-designed organism created from scratch would presumably be much more efficient, and it should be easier to control its products." And, "most scientists overwhelmingly praised the achievement," with one calling it "a tour de force and a landmark paper...that is akin to Jurassic Park or Frankenstein."

Venter himself referred to the cells as "biological transformers," according to Time (5/20, Park). Already, through a collaboration "with Novartis, he is building a bank of man-made versions of every known influenza strain so that if a new strain, such as H1N1, begins to circulate during flu season, vaccine makers can simply pull the appropriate synthetic segments off the shelf and begin the vaccine making process." The "promising" field of synthetic biology, however, "raises as much concern as it does excitement."

In fact, just moments after briefing Congress, several federal agencies, and the White House, the Committee on Energy and Commerce scheduled a public hearing for next week to discuss the new technology, the Wall Street Journal (5/21, A1, Hotz) reports on its front page. Similarly, the paper prompted a quick response from environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, which asked the FDA and the EPA, in a statement, "to fully regulate all synthetic biology experiments and products."

Gregory Kaebnick, employed at "a bioethics think" tank, "says there are two basic concerns about what Venter and others in the new field of synthetic biology are doing," NPR (5/20, Palca) reported. "First, that one of these synthetic organisms will escape from the lab and run amok. And the other is whether this kind of work crosses a line where humans start playing God." Yet, "for the moment, Venter and his colleagues are the only ones with the money and techniques to do this kind of genomic manipulation," but "others are working in related areas, and a new world of synthetic microorganisms might not be far off."

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