The frequency with which science breaks headlines is extremely rare compared to overall scientific output. Top journals like Nature and Science publish ~15 new articles every week of the year, and most of it never makes ripples in the news media. (Case in point, my paper was recently published in Nature, and neither me nor my adviser has been in contact with even my own university’s press department.) Let’s face it, most science just isn’t that important, or interesting, or flashy.
But a paper published today in Science is flashy, oh my! The work is a culmination of years of work led by Craig Venter. What Venter’s institute did was to take the genome from a bacterium (let’s call it X) whose sequence was already known in its entirety. They then decided to make a few changes to it (call this X’). Then, they assembled the full 1,000,000+ nucleotide genome for X’ from an extremely nifty synthesis after ordering fragments of this genome that are 1,000 nucleotides long. Then, they managed to insert this genome for X’ into a new organism, bacterium Y. This insertion, like the prior synthesis step, is also a technological marvel. In doing so, they actually replace Y’s genome with that of X’, essentially reprogramming the single celled organism from one type into the other. The organism is then able to grow and divide, and sequencing its genome reveals that all 1,000,000+ of its nucleotides are exactly what Venter designed.
That’s the actual experiment. And, yes, it is really, really cool. But if there’s one thing Venter is better at than science, it’s probably self promotion. He originally made a name for himself when his former company, Celera, challenged the government funded Human Genome project and sequenced the human genome (they released their results at the same time). Since then, he has sailed around the world on his yacht, sequencing genomes of sea microorganisms in what is essentially a genetic treasure hunt. More recently, he has been trying to create “new life.” This article posted online today, and Venter has already held his own press conference heralding the work. The implication of all this, of course, is humanity’s ability to create life. Venter is calling it a “a living species now, part of our planet’s inventory of life.”
News media have been all over this. Some are asking whether Venter has “made us Gods,” while other articles are quoting scientists like David Baltimore (no slouch) saying things like, “To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this.” That while it is “a technical tour de force… He has not created life, only mimicked it.” In my opinion, Baltimore is mostly right, even though I think this work is great. They key is that X’ really isn’t all that different from X. Venter just deleted a few genes that make the species dangerous, and inserted a few new unique sequences (called “watermarks”) that mark it as his own. What this represents is a technological breakthrough more than a biological breakthrough. What I mean by that is that we currently do not possess enough knowledge of biology to design our own organisms from scratch. To do so is every synthetic biologist’s Holy Grail. It would enable the design of microbes that produce biofuels, or breakdown oil in oceans, or specifically destroy cancerous cells. It’s the stuff of dreams. But we don’t yet know how to design those things from (mostly) scratch. However, if we successfully designed a sequence that could do those things, now we would be able to synthesize that genome and put it into a new organism. Venter’s technology of genome assembly and manipulation is outpacing our understanding of biology. This isn’t a bad (or dangerous) development, but it simply minimizes the usefulness of his results until that day comes. Which might be a long time from now.
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