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:
“TO LIVE, TO ERR, TO FALL, TO TRIUMPH, TO RECREATE LIFE OUT OF LIFE.” – James Joyce
“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.