Life From Life

When you’re a scientist, you spend a lot taking things apart – isn’t one of everyone’s first experiments the dissection of a frog?  Of course, the reason you’re taking things apart is because you’re trying to figure out what makes them tick.  Enter the engineers.  Engineers, rather than take things apart, start putting them together – hopefully in new and useful ways – guided by what we’ve learned from doing all that taking-apart.
And in that vein — this morning, there was an announcement from the J Craig Venter Institute (the west-coast branch of which is down the street from where I currently work) that a team of their scientists announced that they had produced the first self-replicating cell that contains a man-made genome.
From their press release:
The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.
That’s right.  These guys made the largest synthetic construct of biological material ever (a little more than a million base-pairs of DNA), and stuck it into a cell.  That material caused the destruction of the host’s genetic material (a particularly nice trick), took up residence and began being replicated – essentially “re-booting” the cell.  The cells grew and survived.  I wonder if these guys have booked their tickets to Stockholm yet.

Now the genome is more or less the same as that of “regular” M. mycoides, which left the problem of how could the team tell that any later-isolated DNA was derived from the new synthetic genome.  Well, to fix that they changed little bits in their synthetic construct to contain what might be described as “watermarks” — a code-inside-the-DNA-code.  These watermarks translate into the names of the nearly 50 scientists that worked on the project (their signature down in the corner, you might say).  They also included some quotes that the team has found particularly inspirational during a project that has taken more than 15 years:
“SEE THINGS NOT AS THEY ARE, BUT AS THEY MIGHT BE.” -A quote from the book “American Prometheus” about J. Robert Oppenheimer
“WHAT I CANNOT BUILD, I CANNOT UNDERSTAND.” – well-known physicist Richard Feynman.
Now, this is a topic that I’ve posted on before, because I think it’s fascinating intersection of science, ethics, society and even religion.  The irony of today’s announcement falling on “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day” is not lost on me, because of course, the next goal isn’t to show that you can make a copy of something else’s genome and that it works, but to make one that you design yourself – to create a new life form, from scratch.
Now, we’re a long way from that, but I can imagine that’s an idea that is not going to go over well in some sectors of society.

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17 thoughts on “Life From Life

  1. Is this not wonderful news for the researchers trying to make it possible to replace the parts of cells that are flawed in people suffering from certain diseases or that have had accidents and are paraplegics, or are suffering from diabetes, even people with immune diseases such as myself? Down the road, is this not the technology that doctors have hoped for and searched for? I know there is a lot of controversy…..but that aside….is this not a wonderful and amazing discovery?

  2. That material caused the destruction of the host’s genetic material (a particularly nice trick), took up residence and began being replicated – essentially “re-booting” the cell. That is the part that I find particularly scary. While it would be a hilarious trick to use it as a way of changing the skin tone of all KKK members from a pasty white to a more natural dark ebony [1], the potential for mis-use staggers me. As a bioweapon, it is the scariest thing to come out of the labs since weaponized anthrax.John[1] Or, even better, change their sperm so that their offspring all have that hue.

  3. That's really amazing. I heard this news, but didn't really understand it till now (thanks!). Ever since I saw this super-cool documentary on fractals, I became convinced that the future of human learning would involve connecting what now seems like disparate fields. I think that as we start connecting computer science to biology, geology to math, etc., etc., we'll really see amazing things generally.

  4. FS — the sort of gene therapy that you're talking about has been discussed and tried for a long time — but hasn't been very successful. A lot of that is likely due to the fact that the mammalian eukaryotic cell is about 1000x more complicated (at least!) as the simple organisms this team worked on.

  5. John — I don't have the paper yet, but as I understand it the team engineered in a restriction enzyme that would digest the DNA of the host, but for which there were no recognition sequences in the synthetic genome.

  6. Ah. I had heard at one point that they hoped to be able to cure diabetes within 10 years. Perhaps that is too optimistic. I have been hoping that they would come up with more ways to help people with immune problems. I have heard of bone marrow transplant work being done as well. I would be thrilled if they came up with something that could help me.

  7. Hapa — when I was in grad school, I learned that the people doing the coolest stuff were those that were crossing what had previously been separate categories. In my day it was biology and chemistry — now the boundaries are falling left and right!

  8. FS — I guarantee you that literally thousands of researchers are working on ways to help fight so many terrible auto-immune diseases. I think part of the problem is that when someone makes a good step forward, a lot of times they (and the press) will make it sound as if a "cure" is right around the corner — when more rightly they should be counting time in decades. Of course, that's less newsworthy… ;)

  9. Yes, I am sure you are correct. The autoimmune disease that the doctor at Duke is looking into is so rare, that I fear there might not be a treatment. When I googled it, all I saw were research treatments. That did not seem like a good sign. But I am just trying to be patient and wait and see what they end up coming up with. I

  10. I'm all for stem cell research and science science science! I think this is an amazing feat!On the other side of it, I do find myself wondering now and then if we will be looking back at some point and thinking "What have we wrought now?"The oil disaster is coming to my mind. Hindsight and they should have known better. But, this isn't appropriate for here…..I think it's totally cool what they have done. Now they just need to be responsible and careful and not put profits ahead of common sense. Hmmm. ;)

  11. I can't think of how that might be used as a weapon on a large scale, but I'm sure someone with DoD funding is looking into it right now. For a weapon, it only needs to do the first part and replace the DNA with a virus-style code that allows it to replicate. Of course, a good weapon would include code that allows you to kill it completely – but where's the fun in that?Given the relative simplicity, I'm betting on a bioweapon version with in five years. Good-bye world, hello "The Stand".John

  12. Wouldn't the Oppenheimer quote have caused the scientists to cancel the experiment rather than continue with it? Sorry, I'm quoting Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.
    Incredible stuff, no doubt. However my opinion is that in light of stem cell's link to cancer, we try to understand more about the origins of cancer especially before we subject some living being to this new discovery.

  13. Emmi –"Seeing things as they might be" — is certainly a 2-edged sword right? Not only to see the positive, but also as many repercussions as you can imagine.

  14. Thanks for this. I hope I live long enough to see this sort of exciting, avant-garde science lead to quantum leaps in treating catastrophic and chronic illnesses (mine included). But, as you point out, the evil potential and roadblocks ahead are clear—this very moment is a germ in the creation of next Sunday's sermon, all across America and the world.

  15. Thanks Steve, for writing about this complex topic in simple words for laymen like me. I saw the headlines about this in the newspaper and have been waiting for the right time to read about it in detail. It was interesting that the scientists used an existing living cell and injected a new DNA into it and destroyed the host cell's DNA and made this the host cell's DNA. The newspaper headlines said that life has been created in the laboratory, which was probably not true. From your perspective, what do you think would be involved in creating a living cell from scratch in the laboratory? What kind of problems are scientists facing on this front? I don't know much about this and so I thought I will ask you. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this.

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