Friday, June 04, 2010

Reflections on the synthetic cell

This superb article by the always-superb Natalie Angier looks at the big picture surrounding Dr. Craig Venter's announcement that his team has created a bacterium run by an artificial genome. That is, they did not build the whole bacterial cell from scratch, but they did remove the genome and replace it with one they had assembled in the lab, copying from a related bacterium, from chemical building blocks. The new genome immediately began to run the cell like its natural predecessor had. Angier reports the scientists did tinker with the genome to the point of writing scientific graffiti in it with encrypted messages, including Richard Fenyman's postulate that “What I cannot build, I cannot understand."
What Angier explains, though, is how far this still is from creating completely artificial life. A cell is not the seemingly roomy affair seen in textbook illustrations. It's jam-packed with complicated components, some of which we know how to make synthetically and some of which we're a long way off from understanding let alone building. So this a big (and controversial) step, but still only a step.


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Cherie Mac said...

Honestly, I don't see the controversy. I hate how people make huge leaps of faith when what we are dealing with here is a very, very simple cell. What I see is growth and HUGE potential. At the AAAS conference regarding climate change, we learned that we HAVE NO solution for using anything to power planes, trains, ships -- BIG stuff other than fossil fuels. It's going to take a big discovery - much like the nuclear bomb that ended a war - to end the extreme amounts of CO2 we are sending into the atmosphere. I say bring on this research -- it may help provide an answer to the overdosing of our atmosphere or the problem we now have with oil in our ocean. We desperately need some answers.

Matt Bille said...

Amen, Doc. This is light-years from creating synthetic humans, which I think is where the line is drawn for raising important and valid ethical questions. This is modifying bacteria. We may make microbes into more efficient bioreactor fuel sources, disease fighters, and so many other things. I think the controversy arises in large part from the media overhyping this step and its implications, something Ms. Angier has hopefully helped to correct.