Venter creates synthetic life

We finally know why Dr J Craig Venter could not attend the 2010 Design Indaba Conference in person. Yesterday he announced his breakthrough.
Dr J Craig Venter
Dr J Craig Venter

We finally know why Dr J Craig Venter could not attend the 2010 Design Indaba Conference in person, having to deliver his presentation via satellite. Venter has created the first synthetic organism with human-made DNA, it was announced yesterday, 20 May 2010.

This synthetic organism is the culmination of a 15-year project that Venter has been working on. This organism with its manmade DNA was created using little more than a computer, some common microbes, a DNA synthesizer and four bottles of chemicals. Basically it’s the first microbe that thrives and replicates, using only a synthetic genome as guide. Every character of its genetic code was made in a laboratory and stitched together to form an 1m-long artificial chromosome of characters.

The process began with a computer reconstruction of the genome of a common bacterium, Mycoplasma Mycoides. This information was fed into a DNA synthesiser. The synthesiser then produced short strands of the bug’s DNA. These strands were then stitched together by first inserting them into yeast and then into E coli bacteria. The natural repair systems of the bug noticed the broken fragments in the strands and reassembled them.

The scientists then pieced together the entire 1m-long strand of characters of the bacterium’s genome. Fresh strands of DNA that act as nothing more than a “biological watermark” and carry a coded message were also spliced into the genome. Next, the synthetic genome was transferred into another kind of common bug. And as this bug multiplied some of its offspring ditched their own DNA in favour of the synthetic genome. When the cell started reading the new software, it instantly started making a whole different set of proteins and soon all the characteristics of the first species disappeared and a new species emerged.

This technology has the potential to modify life as we know it.  There are fears that this discovery could lead to environmental disasters, not to mention the ethical implications. On the plus side, this technology offers potential solutions to dealing with problems like pollution, new energy sources and new forms of communication. Venter has already secured a deal with oil company Exxon Mobil to create algae that take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into fuel.

Sources: Guardian and The Wall Street Journal

Synbio focus:

Read "To form or multiply", an investigation into what design can contribute to synthetic biology, written by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Watch the Talk with Dr J Craig Venter