Life: Some Assembly Required?

I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you want to sell it!  -Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

When I was in whippersnapper scientist, I spent most of my energy working the field of protein engineering.  What does that mean?  Essentially, it came down to taking proteins (the molecules that do things in cells) and changing them around so that they did something else.  The rationale was that by trying to manipulate the system to do something it wasn’t intended to do – and seeing if you could get that something else to work – you’d learn something fundamental about its biology.

Yeah, yeah… understanding is great, but the real motivation was that it was cool (at least we thought it was).  It was cool because you were getting biological systems to do things they’d never done before at your behest – and that came with the requisite amounts of justifiable pride and all-too-common arrogance that you might expect.

Fast-forward a few years and I was working in pharmaceutical discovery in antibiotics.  I really liked it.  It was also the dawn of the genome-age.  Researchers were working out DNA sequencing techniques on bacteria (because they have tiny genomes compared to you, me, worms, flies and corn) and there was a flood of genomic information on a scale we’d never had before.  Those were heady days.  And one of the things we turned over while eating lunch or having beers was: “How many genes would it take to make a functioning organism?” – sort of like the tootsie pop question, but with life as the chewy center.  The natural follow-up was: “If you could you figure that out, could you put them all together yourself and come up with an organism that had never existed before?”  That’s right – not tweak something a la my old engineering days – but make a life form from scratch.

Well, it turns out that others had been thinking about that, too, of course.  And unlike me, they’ve been working on it for the last dozen or so years.  And last month, researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute announced they were pretty much prepared to take a stab at preparing a tiny man-made genome – smaller than that of the smallest known genome of Mycoplasma genitalium – and combine it with a bit of primed cellular components and see if it will “live” – and by “live” I mean: eat, poop, and most importantly, replicate itself.

When you talk about pride and arrogance in science, Venter is the poster boy.   A pioneer in genomic sciences, he raced the NIH-funded Human Genome Project by sequencing his own (and his dog’s) genomes.  He is very controversial in the life sciences and pushing this “origin of life” research isn’t going to make him any less so.

When the idea of sequencing the human genome was promoted at the end of the 1980s, people thought those proponents were crazy (it couldn’t be done!) – and it was accomplished ahead of schedule and under budget.  The idea of creating an organism from scratch seemed even more preposterous in the mid-90s, but yet again here we are on the brink.

I know that this will likely be the ultimate fuel in “scientists playing God” debates, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the idea hasn’t always intrigued me.

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12 thoughts on “Life: Some Assembly Required?

  1. I think this is real interesting research. First will just be making something that lives, the next step is sequencing something that will serve a function and that is where it gets real interesting and scary at the same time.

  2. Really intriguing. Fascinating, actually. Molecular genetics was my favorite subject in college but I was too chicken to go into it for a living because of all of the ethical questions that I knew would arise in my lifetime.

  3. Ahhh that's so funny! My favorite quote is from Mr. Jeff Goldblum as well, almost in the same sentence – "You were so busy figuring out whether or not you could, you didn't stop to think about whether or not you should".
    This reminds me of the GMO problem – who could have forseen people becoming allergic to the proteins in these Frankenfoods? That's the problem, the things we can't forsee.

  4. "I know that this will likely be the ultimate fuel in “scientists playing God” debates, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the idea hasn’t always intrigued me."
    I'd be lying if I said the idea doesn't intrigue me, too. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she wrote in in an era when to question nature and man's role in it, was practically heretical. Since then every film Hollywood grinds out on the subject has made the same moral point. "Mess with nature at your peril." I disagree strongly with that mentality. If we followed that 'warning' we'd still be using leeches to 'cure' people and naysayers would also be without the technology that makes our lives so wonderful today. Keep up the thought-process and the work, Steve. I wish the country was throwing more money the way of scientific research and technological advancements, rather than on killing ourselves and other people.
    One of the most intriguing posts I've read since I signed onto VOX. I am passing this one on…

  5. Maya — funny… that's one of my favorite quotes too! In fact, when I originally thought about this post, I had that one instead of the one I used. Maybe I shouldn't have switched it out!
    GM plants are a funny thing, b/c unlike animals they're harder to corral if need be — with pollination occurring through wind and breeze. One thing about even these small genomes — with only a few hundred genes — we still don't know what all the genes do!

  6. Thanks Patrica — I always cringe when I watch the old movies "its ALIVE!! its ALIVE!!" — though I have always loved the novel of Frankenstein — very much about personal responsibility for one's actions, moreso than a fear of technology — though as you say, its been re-interpreted for the latter more these days.

  7. In a few weeks, I'm heading to bay area to participate in a workshop on BioBricks, which is Drew Endy's term for biological parts that can be used for synthetic biology. To some extent it depends on which side of the transhumanist argument you fall on. I suspect many of us are in the middle.I think it's inevitable that we'll end up augmenting/enhancing current biological reality in some way. Question is, will we do it before we understand the consequences or after?

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