We’re one step closer to creating synthetic life in the lab, reports Britain’s BBC News on a story that first broke in the Guardian before the actual achievement! The team has finally made a breakthrough, with results published in the journal Science.
The team, 17 scientists in all, built the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium by synthesizing small blocks of DNA. They used other bacteria to make multiple copies of the blocks, then linked them together to make larger sections referred to as gene “cassettes.” These cassettes were then joined in the circular shape of the M. genitalium bacterium, a complete “synthetic” genome.
But first, the team must insert their synthetic genome into another cell, allowing the genome to hijack the cell and start reproducing.
The new organism—yet to be completed—was dubbed Mycoplasma JCV1-1.0 in honor of the J. Craig Venter Institute (whose namesake, Craig Venter, played an important role in mapping the human genome).
Team leader Hamilton Smith, who shared 1978’s Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine “for the discovery of restriction enzymes and their application to problems of molecular genetics,” described the team’s success as “installing the software—basically we have to boot up the genome, get it operating.” Smith continued:
We’re simply re-writing the operating software for cells—we’re not designing a genome from the bottom up—you can’t drop a genome into a test tube and expect it to come to life.
The use of the term “synthetic” as opposed to “artificial” is intentional, however, as Smith noted, “We like to distinguish synthetic life from artificial life. With synthetic life, we're re-designing the cell chromosomes; we're not creating a whole new artificial life system.”
Venter’s team eventually hopes to construct specially made organisms that can conduct specific tasks, such as producing clean fuels, processing greenhouse gases, and the like. But first, the team must insert their synthetic genome into another cell, allowing the genome to hijack the cell and start reproducing.
The announcement has, of course, given even more fuel to the debate over such biological experimentation, which these days is moving ahead most quickly at the genomic and cellular level. MIT biological engineer Drew Endy, commenting on the news, suggested that in five years it may be possible to even construct mammalian chromosomes.
But British bioethicist Simon Woods of the University of Newcastle’s Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre expressed concern for the “dangerous consequences” such unregulated experimentation might have: “It’s not necessarily going to stay in the hands of well-intentioned scientists.”
AiG’s own Georgia Purdom, who received her Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the Ohio State University, commented on the topic a few months ago—when the team was on the verge of the breakthrough—in Have Scientists Created a New Life-form in the Lab? Regarding the most recent news, Dr. Purdom emphasized, “This is not an example of creating life. It’s a new form of genetic engineering. There’s a lot of hype about this and that’s not surprising, but we need to be really careful that we evaluate truthfully what Venter is trying to accomplish. Venter himself has said he is not creating life; he is modifying life to come up with new life-forms using premade components.”
Indeed, no matter what the merits and dangers of such genome synthesizing—merits and dangers that are largely unknown at this point—it’s important to remember that scientists are not creating life; they are merely synthesizing a genome based on the Creator’s original design for life.