Friday, May 21, 2010

TED Talks - Craig Venter Unveils "Synthetic Life"

Figure 1
Life re-created. Blue colonies (top) indicate a successfully transplanted genome, with self-replicating bacteria revealed in an electron micrograph.

This is a major, Nobel Prize level break-through in biology. One of my clients - who is a high level cancer researcher - thinks Venter will be known as the Oppenheimer of biology. Funny that he encodes an Oppenheimer quote into the bacteria.


Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome

Daniel G. Gibson,1 John I. Glass,1 Carole Lartigue,1 Vladimir N. Noskov,1 Ray-Yuan Chuang,1 Mikkel A. Algire,1 Gwynedd A. Benders,2 Michael G. Montague,1 Li Ma,1 Monzia M. Moodie,1 Chuck Merryman,1 Sanjay Vashee,1 Radha Krishnakumar,1 Nacyra Assad-Garcia,1 Cynthia Andrews-Pfannkoch,1 Evgeniya A. Denisova,1 Lei Young,1 Zhi-Qing Qi,1 Thomas H. Segall-Shapiro,1 Christopher H. Calvey,1 Prashanth P. Parmar,1 Clyde A. Hutchison, III,2 Hamilton O. Smith,2 J. Craig Venter1,2,*

We report the design, synthesis, and assembly of the 1.08-Mbp Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome starting from digitized genome sequence information and its transplantation into a Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cell to create new Mycoplasma mycoides cells that are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The only DNA in the cells is the designed synthetic DNA sequence, including "watermark" sequences and other designed gene deletions and polymorphisms, and mutations acquired during the building process. The new cells have expected phenotypic properties and are capable of continuous self-replication.

1 The J. Craig Venter Institute, 9704 Medical Center Drive, Rockville, MD 20850, USA.
2 The J. Craig Venter Institute, 10355 Science Center Drive, San Diego, CA 92121, USA.

* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

Received for publication 9 April 2010. Accepted for publication 13 May 2010.
Science has made the article available for free (download the PDF). You can also read a free summary article at the Science site, written by Elizabeth Pennisi.

It took 20 years and an around $40 million to get to this point, which is revealed online by the journal Science.
Craig Venter and team make a historic announcement: they've created the first fully functioning, reproducing cell controlled by synthetic DNA. He explains how they did it and why the achievement marks the beginning of a new era for science.

Venter, the man who led the private effort to sequence the human genome, is hard at work now on even more potentially world-changing projects.

First, there's his mission aboard the Sorcerer II, a 92-foot yacht, which, in 2006, finished its voyage around the globe to sample, catalouge and decode the genes of the ocean's unknown microorganisms. Quite a task, when you consider that there are tens of millions of microbes in a single drop of sea water. Then there's the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to researching genomics and exploring its societal implications.

In 2005, Venter founded Synthetic Genomics, a private company with a provocative mission: to engineer new life forms. Its goal is to design, synthesize and assemble synthetic microorganisms that will produce alternative fuels, such as ethanol or hydrogen. He was on Time magzine's 2007 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

In early 2008, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced that they had manufactured the entire genome of a bacterium by painstakingly stitching together its chemical components. By sequencing a genome, scientists can begin to custom-design bootable organisms, creating biological robots that can produce from scratch chemicals humans can use, such as biofuel. And in 2010, they announced, they had created "synthetic life" -- DNA created digitally, inserted into a living bacterium, and remaining alive.

"Either he is one of this era's most electrifying scientists, or he's one of the most maddening." ~Washington Post


Dr George Church, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor: "It's been a long time coming, and it was worth the wait. It's a milestone that has potential practical applications."

David Baltimore, a geneticist at Caltech, in the New York Times: "To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this. [The result is] a technical tour de force. He has not created life, only mimicked it."

Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford University: "Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially ... or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally."

Mark Bedau, a philosopher at Reed College, Portland, Oregon: "[This is] a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology".

Dr Helen Wallace of Genewatch UK: "If you release new organisms into the environment, you can do more harm than good. By releasing them into areas of pollution, [with the aim of cleaning it up], you're actually releasing a new kind of pollution. We don't know how these organisms will behave in the environment."

Professor Julian Savulescu, of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University: "We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse. These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm."

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