Synthesizing Our World

May 26th, 2010

Most of the media, yours truly included, was abuzz this past week about the news from the J. Craig Venter Institute that they had created a bacteria with a fully synthetic genome. Now, how far the proclamation was taken was a matter of sensationalist bent; was it “artificial life” or something less sci-fi?

In my personal opinion, which I tried to discuss a few places, it is a landmark report if only for the sheer technological know-how. The Venter Institute has proof-of-concept of various techniques working together for the first time. The bacterium they created are copies of an existing bacterium, but the copy genome was produced base by base in a dish rather than inside a living organism. Also, the copy genome was inserted into another species of bacteria whose genome had been removed (it was a shell of its previous self), and successfully took over the management of the bacterial body.

Now, the Venter Institute has generations of little baby bacteria that are the product of successful asexual bacterial reproduction (i.e. cell division) from that first synthetic generation. If they are dividing and multiplying like regular bacteria, I have to say it is a job well done. But, if they truly want to create artificial life, they are going to have to figure out how to create the bacterial body that goes with the DNA.

I’m sure scientists are already working on that problem, but in the meantime, the Venter Institute will be working with the DNA to determine what genes are necessary for life, what the minimum size limit is for a genome to run a microbe, and which genes can be added successfully to bacteria to make them do our bidding.

In addition to this very visible bacteria story, another equally interesting and potentially sci-fi scientific development hit the journal Nature this last week. Robots… little tiny robots that crawl around inside your cells to fix things are a bit closer to reality.

According to Bethany Halford of Chemical &Engineering News:

“Using DNA as the key construction material, one group of researchers created a nanoscale robot that can autonomously walk across a track, and a different group prepared a nanofactory in which DNA robots can carry and deposit nanoparticle cargo.”

The track in question will eventually be your cytoskeleton, the tiny fibers that give your cells their shape, and act as the transportation routes for cellular delivery systems. If the groups involved in these two studies can put their work together, we will have tiny machines that can carry payloads from place to place within your cells - a goal of researchers wanting very specific intracellular chemical delivery.

Also from the article:

“A goal of our field is to refashion and reimagine all the complex biochemical machinery of cells to suit our own purposes—to have synthetic molecules that can move around and carry cargo as protein motors do in cells, to have molecules that act as chemical factories, which make a particular product based on a particular chemical input, and above all to make these processes modular, to make them engineerable,” notes Paul W. K. Rothemund, the Caltech scientist who invented DNA origami.”

So, someday in the possibly not-so-distant future we may have synthetic bacteria that do our bidding in the environment, AND synthetic machines that help us live healthier lives.


3 Responses to “Synthesizing Our World”

  1. alloycowboy on May 26, 2010 11:20 pm

    Odd, it sure seems to take a lot of intervention just to modify a simple baterium never mind creating one from scratch. But I guess those type of things just don’t happen by themselves.

  2. LeKevbo on May 27, 2010 6:08 am

    This needs to advance now! There’s something in the fridge I want but it’s too far to walk. Synthetic bacteria could be programmed to fetch. Make it happen, Venter!

  3. John Monahan on August 11, 2010 7:24 pm

    The history of science is full of people who pushed the envelope only to find themselves someplace they never dreamed of, for better or ill.

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