First Synthetic Lifeform is Nigh

Colony of the transformed Mycoplasma mycoides bacteriumExciting scientific developments descend upon us, as scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, have successfully managed to transfer an entire genome of one species into another — which grew and multiplied into the first species. Why is this significant? Because the next experiment involves creating and implanting a synthetic genome — the success of which could mark the creation of the first artificial lifeform and enable greater possibilities for biological engineering.

The achievement was made today by Dr. Craig Venter and his team using the following method as described in their press release:

The JCVI team devised several key steps to enable the genome transplantation. First, an antibiotic selectable marker gene was added to the M. mycoides LC chromosome to allow for selection of living cells containing the transplanted chromosome. Then the team purified the DNA or chromosome from M. mycoides LC so that it was free from proteins (called naked DNA). This M. mycoides LC chromosome was then transplanted into the M. capricolum cells. After several rounds of cell division, the recipient M. capricolum chromosome disappeared having been replaced by the donor M. mycoides LC chromosome, and the M. capricolum cells took on all the phenotypic characteristics of M. mycoides LC cells.

Colonies of the transformed Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium

The image above shows colonies of the transformed Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium. Dr. Venter says that in light of this advance — the team plans to do the same using a genome produced from scratch in a laboratory within months. As reported by the UK Telegraph:

The scientists want to create new kinds of bacterium to make new types of bugs which can be used as green fuels to replace oil and coal, digest toxic waste or absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

[...]

Since the 1970s, scientists have moved genes – instructions to make proteins – between different organisms.

But this marks the first time that the entire instruction set, consisting of more than a million “letters” of DNA, has been transplanted, transforming one species of bacterium into another.

They are attempting to build a microbe with the minimal set of genes needed for life, with the goal of then adding other useful genes, such as ones for making biofuels.

Seems my simulated artificial lifeforms don’t seem as significant for the time being! But of course, there are still things that we need to overcome. According to the Telegraph, only one in every 150,000 transfers worked. There are also concerns regarding safety — unexpected side effects can abruptly become evident when evolution is superseded. Venter mentions in addition that the project was on pause for some time while under review for ethical concerns, as these advances can lead to new kinds of biological warfare.

Nevertheless it’s an exciting development and I look forward to hearing the results of their consequent experiments.

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14 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Arnþór L. Arnarson

    I was going to mention how important biology is as an inspiration for computer science; but I guess that is not needed now. The matter has become obvious.

    I have long suspected that this would be the way forward in biology. This makes the convergence between biology and computer science inevitable.

    Biology ( a part of it ) will be conducted in a computer, only to be implemented in the field.

  2. I think we sould name the new creation (if successful) Frankensteineum.

    John

  3. You’ve got a real neat blog! And a good concept too… did you do it all by yourself?

  4. Hrafn

    I think we sould name the new creation (if successful) Frankensteineum.

    Haha. I second that.

    You’ve got a real neat blog! And a good concept too… did you do it all by yourself?

    Thanks.
    Not sure what you mean by “good concept”?

  5. There is definitely a relationship growing between biology and computer science, but the former will never be replaced by the latter. I have a great deal of respect for the randomness and intricate nature of biological systems.

  6. Arnþór L. Arnarson

    I agree Leslie. I find that too few, in computer science, are aware of the amzing things one they can find in biology.

  7. Hrafn

    I have a great deal of respect for the randomness and intricate nature of biological systems.

    Assuming there is such a thing as randomness, we haven’t reached a definite conclusion on that one ;) But I agree, nature’s amazing.

  8. How else would one explain the nature of spontaneous mutations that occur within an organism during fertilization or development or even at maturity when most growth has ceased? Some may have occurred as a result of genetic predisposition or environmental exposure, but they don’t address 100% of occurrences. Enlighten me! (And don’t tell me God did it!)

  9. Hrafn

    Some may have occurred as a result of genetic predisposition or environmental exposure, but they don’t address 100% of occurrences. Enlighten me! (And don’t tell me God did it!)

    Haha, no, I’m not going to tell you a god did it.
    First of all, absolute randomness means that there is some physical matter that changes without causation from the physical reality. Like having a can of coke that opens without any actions or reactions to the environment or internal configurations of matter.

    We haven’t shown that there exists matter without causation. It’s true that we’ve observed occurances we haven’t found cause for yet (e.g. decay of atoms), but there’s no definite proof that they happen without relation to physical reality. And, as of yet, few things in the world have remained completely inexplicable for long.

    In light of this, I’m scientifically inclined to remain undecided on whether there exists such a thing as “random matter” as opposed to “causation we haven’t discovered”.

    Theoretically, I consider it a much harder problem to explain how random works than it is to explain complex mutations (actually, the definition of true randomness entails that it can’t be explained). If we have no causation, we can’t apply the scientific method: Something happens and there’s no physical reason why — no reasoning can be used to explain the occurance. In this sense, one might say that random is a bit unreasonable :)

  10. Perhaps the term ‘random mutation’ is misleading and inappropriately named. One can sometimes predict where and how these mutations will occur, but the full potential of such predictions is yet to be fully explored. I am content to say that there is no design or purpose to random mutation. We know there just are somethings that can’t be explained. I agree that explaining randomness is easily oversimplified.

    Statistically speaking, randomness could simply mean a lack of correlation. I don’t think science will ever fully understand DNA enough to understand and find a cause of ‘random’ mutations.

  11. Hrafn

    Perhaps the term ‘random mutation’ is misleading and inappropriately named. One can sometimes predict where and how these mutations will occur, but the full potential of such predictions is yet to be fully explored.

    Yeah. I suspected from the start that I’d not made myself clear enough in what I meant. There’s a difference between absolute randomness, and something that’s so complex that it appears random. For many systems, we still don’t know which is which :)

    We agree, except for never understanding random mutations to the fullest, but I’m not fishing for a debate on that one (nor would that debate end anywhere, only time will tell).

  12. Daniel Lambrou Basilious

    If this finding is for the good of humanity igo along with it , on the other hand their will be a religious moral conflict, in any case since i am one of the puzzeles that fits the human cain , i will be following your findings. Daniel.

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