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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Venter’s Celebrity Bacterium: The Faucet Drip That Would Be a Monsoon

Last week, bio-entrepreneur icon Craig Venter burst yet again into the limelight.  He announced that a team under his direction inserted a chemically synthesized genome into Mycoplasma and succeeded in getting the resulting bacterium to propagate. The work duly appeared in Science and the predictable shouting ensued, from fears that humans are “playing God” to hails of “artificial life”.

Several important issues got lost in the din. Let’s leave the obvious potential objections aside – after all, humans started futzing the moment their frontal cortex became prominent and the consequences of this, intended and not, have decisively affected earth and all life on it.  Instead, let’s examine the clothes of this emperor closer up. To stick with the metaphor, Venter’s latest is like exactly reproducing a large cloak onto a new piece of fabric identical to that of the original. It’s not like creating a new garment or even cutting and pasting from previous garments to make a quilt, crazy or otherwise.

The Venter work is not a discovery, let alone a paradigm shift. It’s a technological advance and even then not of technique but only of scale. The experiment is merely an extension of a well-known principle that every biology lab uses routinely: namely, that bacterial genomes can be modified almost at will (barring a few indispensable regions) and in such ways as to turn the bacteria into potent mini-factories for specific proteins. The Venter bacterium is actually pedestrian because it carries an exact duplicate of a naturally occurring genome. Its only artificial aspects are the molecular “flags” that its makers included in the synthesis to mark the artificial genome for further tracking – standard operating procedure in all such modifications.

Most decidedly, this is not artificial life (though I hasten to add that there is nothing mystical or long-term unknowable about components of living cells and organisms, including the eventual ability to tweak them). To propagate the synthesized chromosome, the Venter team used a bacterium whose endogenous DNA had been removed but was otherwise intact. This means that they used existing natural components to do the real task of propagation – the entire structure and machinery of the host cell. This makes the endeavor even less groundbreaking than injecting genetic material into a mammalian egg or stem cell (as was done to produce Dolly the sheep with far less advanced technology).

Lastly, this does not bring us a single step closer to engineering customized functions, from vacuuming up oil spills, excess CO2 or methane to producing chlorophyll or unique drugs. Creating a synthetic cell totally de novo is theoretically doable but far below the event horizon. Altering existing genes and/or creating ones for novel functions is more distant still, because making the coding part is only a small part of the task — if we figure out how to get them to encode it, for starters. Persuading them to express at the right place and time is equally crucial. So is coaxing them to work in eukaryotic cells which, unlike easy-going bacteria, have carefully guarded compartments – the nucleus in particular.

In short, the Venter endeavor was expensive, glitzy – and banal. My advice to bioethicists is to save their energy for truly fearsome items, such as recombinant bacteria or viruses that may arise from species pushed together by abrupt dislocations of habitats (and for the inevitable push for a broad research-suffocating patent from this work). I’ve done far more “dangerous” work in my near-constant cloning than this sheep attempting to pass as a wolf… nay, a lion.

Note 1: The article is now featured at Huffington Post.

Note 2: The article has also been reprinted at io9.

11 Responses to “Venter’s Celebrity Bacterium: The Faucet Drip That Would Be a Monsoon”

  1. Neo says:

    When my school teacher told us, that all cells which are building blocks of life are made of chemical elements, I wondered, can we somehow build life by ourselves? My doubt was that, if we somehow calculate exact amount of each chemical element, and then put them into a boiling flask and heat them for sufficient time, will we get same form of life? At that time, I didn’t know about DNA and all.
    Well, that was a school kid’s thought, and now, I pretty much know(or think) we can’t cook “life” like that.
    Though I’m not qualified to make specific comments about the advancement of Venter, I believe to call something “synthetic life”, it should be much more sophistacted, like having DNA that is derived (please forgive the word “derived”, I’m an engineer, used to mathematical words. There may be some better word in Biology, but I hope you get the meaning) and that exhibits entirely new behavior.


    P.S. I was expecting your article on this. So thank you for posting. 🙂
    and what is the meaning of second picture?

  2. Neo says:

    Well, I guess, I got meaning of second picture.


  3. Athena says:

    Yes, a storm in a teacup! As to your other question, we can actually build the blocks of life by a combination of methods. These include brute-force chemical synthesis, as well as use of components of living cells (enzymes, for example) in an in vitro context. Putting these together to create an entire living organism is a different story. Right now, gene engineering is a hybrid discipline and most of our tools are (and will almost certainly continue to be) biological.

    I couldn’t let this pass by without commenting. Venter has caused biology a good deal of trouble and I predict he will cause more, if only because of the sweeping patents he will demand and the hysteria he has already raised over what is really a squib (albeit a very expensive one).

  4. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > . . .humans started futzing the moment their frontal cortex
    > became prominent. . .

    You know, I assume that “futz” is a euphemism for “putz”,
    itself a Yiddish pet name for “schmeckie” or “schlong”. ;->

    So “futz around” means something like “dick around” or
    “screw around”.

    And “their frontal cortex became prominent” was somewhat
    analogous to. . . never mind.

    Oh, the phallicity of intellectual endeavor.

  5. Athena says:

    Actually, Jim, futz and putz come from totally different root words. Futz is a contraction of words that mean “farting around”. Nothing to do with phallicity — and, in turn, phallicity has nothing to do with intellectual endeavor even for those who (want to) conflate the two heads.

  6. Eniac says:

    I love the first picture!

    Mostly, I agree, this work is not as monumental as it is made up to be. I like this better:

    Surely you have seen it. It seems like quite a feat to me, and it is truly artificial. Lots of practical consequences, too, in terms of generating polymers from non-biological amino acids, for applications such as drug design and nanotechnology.

  7. Athena says:

    Yes, that picture says it all! *laughs*

    I hadn’t seen the Chin work, but there is a rather major spanner in it: Creating artificial proteins will be clearly feasibly. Creating artificial proteins that fold, have activity, etc — a different order of complexity altogether.

  8. Eniac says:

    Yes, that’s true, but it has been done already. It is called “protein design” and is a burgeoning field. Take the following paragraph from Wikipedia as an initial entry point:

    “The design of minimalist computer models of proteins (lattice proteins), and the secondary structural modification of real proteins, began in the mid-1990s. The de novo design of real proteins became possible shortly afterwards, and the 21st century has seen the creation of small proteins with real biological function including catalysis and antiviral behaviour. There is great hope that the design of these and larger proteins will have application in medicine and bioengineering.”

  9. Athena says:

    I believe the operative word here is “small” — after all, peptides are active as hormones and neurotransmitters. Additionally, your Wikipedia link also makes several statements along these lines: “The number of possible amino acid sequences is enormous, but only a subset of them will fold reliably and quickly to a single native state.” Which is part of my point.

    Even more crucially, this type of design cannot really help design functional proteins with totally novel properties.

  10. Eniac says:

    Through the creation and incorporation of contrived amino acids, the Chin work now allows us to add arbitrary chemical constructs to natural or artificially designed proteins with atomic precision, which is a really big deal, I think.

    Let’s take bets on who gets the Nobel: Venter, Chin, or some pioneering protein designer. My bet is on the latter two, but you never know….

  11. Athena says:

    Yes, but designed to do what? These are all proofs of principle but solely at the primary structure scale. The big deal is to make proteins with new properties. Otherwise, this is expensive retreading.