Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Life by (human) design

By Steve Rensberry   

 The recent announcement by Craig Venter and his team of scientists that they had created the first, truly synthetic life form has drawn reactions as predictable as the earth's rotation around the sun. Neither has it been all that surprising that bloggers everywhere were pondering its implications more than any other subject last week, according to a Pew Research Center update of June. 2.
    "Bloggers often seem more interested in scientific discoveries than does the traditional press. And last week, one such scientific achievement led the online conversation despite receiving very little coverage in the mainstream media," the PRC's analysis says.
    I don't feel I need to even tell you how the news has been received, but it appears to me the reactions have been nearly identical to those we've been seeing since first mucking around with even the slightest of DNA structures years ago.
    Certainly many of us have suspected that life could, conceivably be formed at the hands of humans, someday maybe, but in 2010? One site I stumbled upon predicted genetic engineers would design the first artificially-created species oh, in about the year 3,000! Surely, the bacteria dubbed "Synthia" by the J. Venter Institute group has only the ability to survive and reproduce, but it's potentially a mighty big first step. The bacteria's formal name is Mycoplasma mycoides. Interestingly, Venter even embedded his own name into the synthetic bacteria's DNA, along with the name of other team members.
    Pharmaceutical companies like what he's done. Big oil likes it. Others have forthrightly trivialized it, perhaps even with some degree of justification. Athena Andreadis, who is an Associate Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, questions on her blog at www.starshipnivan.com/blog/, whether the description of what Venter did is even accurate
    "To propagate the synthesized chromosome, the Venter team used a bacterium whose endogenous DNA had been removed but was otherwise intact. This means that they used existing natural components to do the real task of propagation – the entire structure and machinery of the host cell. This makes the endeavor even less groundbreaking than injecting genetic material into a mammalian egg or stem cell (as was done to produce Dolly the sheep with far less advanced technology)," she writes.
    In Andreadis' words, Venter's achievement was "expensive, glitzy – and banal."
    "What Venter really announced was that a team under his direction inserted a chemically synthesized genome into Mycoplasma and succeeded in getting the resulting bacterium to propagate," she says.
    It's going to be interesting, to say the least, to see where Venter's work takes us over the next few months and years.