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Saturday, 31 July 2010

First Synthetic Organism Created


Dear Reader,

Meet Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. Also known as "Synthia".

In May 2010, Wall Street Journal reported that scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute had created the first synthetic organism. (Ref: WSJ, 21st May 2010. Scientists Create Synthetic Organism.) Here is an excerpt.

Heralding a potential new era in biology, scientists for the first time have created a synthetic cell, completely controlled by man-made genetic instructions, researchers at the private J. Craig Venter Institute announced Thursday.

"We call it the first synthetic cell," said genomics pioneer Craig Venter, who oversaw the project. "These are very much real cells."

Created at a cost of $40 million, this experimental one-cell organism, which can reproduce, opens the way to the manipulation of life on a previously unattainable scale, several researchers and ethics experts said. Scientists have been altering DNA piecemeal for a generation, producing a menagerie of genetically engineered plants and animals. But the ability to craft an entire organism offers a new power over life, they said.

Its genome is entirely synthetic. It has vast commercial potential. However, moral issues of "Playing God" have always plagued society, as early as the cloning case of Dolly the Sheep. There is no doubt that Dr Venter knows the "moral and ethical debates about whether it is right to manipulate life forms—which arose with the advent of cloning, stem-cell technology and genetic engineering". (Ref: ibid.)

Dr Venter intends to patent the experimental synthetic life form on the basis that "They are pretty clearly human inventions". The WSJ article clearly states how the synthetic lifeform was created:

To make the synthetic cell, a team of 25 researchers at labs in Rockville, Md., and San Diego, led by bioengineer Daniel Gibson and Mr. Venter, essentially turned computer code into a new life form. They started with a species of bacteria called Mycoplasma capricolum and, by replacing its genome with one they wrote themselves, turned it into a customized variant of a second existing species, called Mycoplasma mycoides, they reported.

To begin, they wrote out the creature's entire genetic code as a digital computer file, documenting more than one million base pairs of DNA in a biochemical alphabet of adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. They edited that file, adding new code, and then sent that electronic data to a DNA sequencing company called Blue Heron Bio in Bothell, Wash., where it was transformed into hundreds of small pieces of chemical DNA, they reported.

To assemble the strips of DNA, the researchers said they took advantage of the natural capacities of yeast and other bacteria to meld genes and chromosomes in order to stitch those short sequences into ever-longer fragments until they had assembled the complete genome, as the entire set of an organism's genetic instructions is called.

They transplanted that master set of genes into an emptied cell, where it converted the cell into a different species.

(Ref: ibid.)

I just can't help but be reminded of the Little Shop of Horrors and The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

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