Last spring a fundamental breakthrough in the nascent arena of synthetic biology took place. A group of researchers in Maryland, led by Dr. Jay Craig Venter, created a bacterial cell controlled solely by a chemically synthesized genome. That is to say that the researchers engineered an artificial DNA sequence based on the computer record of the genome of the bacteria M. mycoides. The synthetic DNA sequence was then introduced into the cell of a different bacteria, M. capricolum, from whom its own DNA had been removed.  Thus, a new synthetic bacterium, dubbed “Synthia”, came to exist.  The new organism was viable and able to replicate indefinitely. To be clear, the synthetic genome did not come from a previously living organism but was completely chemically synthesized in the lab based on a computer “blueprint”.

This outcome was the result of a 15 year effort by Venter’s group. Previously, this group had synthesized the genome of bacteria with the goal of creating a new life form by the name of M. laboratorium, for which the group submitted patents in 2006.

The importance of this recent achievement can be overshadowed by the controversy of whether this is a new form of life or not, a claim that is not made by Venter’s group.  Some researchers have argued that this only replicates what nature does naturally and re-creates an existing living organism using borrowed cellular infrastructure, in this case, the cell membrane from a different but related bacterium.

Beyond the question of what the new bacterium is or is not, is the significance of the scientific process that achieved a viable and self replicating bacterium.  The fact that researchers were able to put together the right combination of chemicals that comprise a minimal DNA structure and were able to kick start its reproduction is quite amazing. This demonstrates a basic but thorough understanding of the way biology works at the cellular level and of the many small but relevant interactions among different cellular mechanisms that control self division.

So what is remarkable about this breakthrough? There are practical applications in the horizon, of course. Exxon Mobil currently has a TV ad that talks about a venture called Synthetic Genomics, a venture co-founded with Dr. Venter. Funding for this venture is said to be in the $600 million dollar range and has the immediate goal of engineering algae for production of diesel fuel.  The dream of a biological and renewable source of liquid fuel might be at hand with profound implications for our fossil fuel dependant world economy. Venter himself has also expressed interest in synthesizing bacteria to manufacture hydrogen and other biofuels and also to absorb carbon dioxide and other green house gases.

Some other practical and economic applications include the engineering of better crops, engineered fish that can get some of their energy from sunlight, bacteria that hunt and degrade pollutants and microbes that invade cancer tissues.  There is so much potential, not the least of which is in the health arena. Vaccines and medicines that can work on the underlying genetic sources of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Cancer, Diabetes and many others, that have a strong genetic component might become available in the decades to come.  Beyond curing or outright wiping out diseases with strong genetic components, the understanding of the essential working mechanisms of life itself will give humanity a truly immense power on what more life can be. Understanding the machinery of life at a fundamental level can lead to new methods of cellular re-generation that may lead to dramatic increases in life span and eventually, biological immortality.

This may sound fantastic, but one of the goals of research such as Venter’s is to do exactly that – beat the curse of cellular degeneration and terminal mutations.

Venter’s breakthrough is only the latest in a series of breakthroughs that started not that long ago in the 20th century.  The launching point could be said to be when Watson and Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA, followed by the discovery of the mechanism of meiosis cell division, the role of mitochondrial DNA, RNA protein synthesis mechanisms, and most recently genome decoding and cloning.  Most of these, especially the earlier discoveries after Watson and Crick, have been silent breakthroughs, mostly away from public limelight.  Only the most recent ones such as cloning, which elucidate human manipulation of life in a more tangible way, have created a bit of an uproar.   Piece by piece, they have brought us very close to understanding and mastering life itself.

The emerging field of synthetic biology is at hand.  It is the aim of this field to treat microbial biology in the same way we treat electronic engineering or information technology.  Like these other established fields, this filed seeks to establish a complete infrastructure for design, simulation and fabrication. Synthetic biology researchers would like to create a tool set, similar to object oriented programming or electronics, in which libraries of biological building blocks are created and shared for assembling new engineered biological machinery.

It is interesting that the Vatican does not oppose Venter’s research as they have publicly stated that they do not consider this a new type of life.  I believe they do not truly understand the significance of his research, because if they did, they would certainly oppose it. Perhaps they do understand the implications but realize that human mastery over life cannot be stopped.  Though, I think this practical resignation is quite unlikely given the church’s opposition to all technologies that they consider violate the sanctity of human life.  Moral and religious implications abound as the power to control life nears.

The time when researchers will be able to produce true new life forms is in the horizon and will become a reality faster than we can digest all of its repercussions.  As with any powerful technology, such as atomic energy, the consequences of its misuse can be apocalyptic.  Some worst case scenarios of misuse include the creation of organisms that reproduce and displace natural ones leading to mass extinctions, the creation of new organisms for which we lack immunity or are unable to control, and organisms designed as weapons for lethal applications by clandestine organizations, to name a few.

Although the risks are real, I personally do not believe that these scenarios will pan out. After all, we have had the power of the atom for over 60 years and we have been able to harness it and not destroy ourselves. Faced with new advancements in science and technology, control them we must, yet the threat will always exist.  There is no real way of stopping new technological developments such as this one, since knowledge follows a progressive path which can be traced back to when humanity began using tools as a means to survive. The proverbial promethean fire driving the quest for knowledge and survival will take us to remarkable achievements which will always be paired with equally remarkable risks. It is up to us to do the best we can with the fire that we are about to steal from god.

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