And On The Fourth Day, Venter Said, Let There Be A Press Release

J. Craig Venter Institute:

Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit genomic research organization, published results today describing the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. The team synthesized the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome. The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

This research will be published by Daniel Gibson et al in the May 20th edition of Science Express and will appear in an upcoming print issue of Science.

“For nearly 15 years Ham Smith, Clyde Hutchison and the rest of our team have been working toward this publication today–the successful completion of our work to construct a bacterial cell that is fully controlled by a synthetic genome,” said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., founder and president, JCVI and senior author on the paper. “We have been consumed by this research, but we have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good. We look forward to continued review and dialogue about the important applications of this work to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all.”

According to Dr. Smith, “With this first synthetic bacterial cell and the new tools and technologies we developed to successfully complete this project, we now have the means to dissect the genetic instruction set of a bacterial cell to see and understand how it really works.”

Eliza Strickland at Discover:

In another step forward in the quest to create artificial life in a test tube, a team of genetic engineers led by Craig Venter has built a synthetic genome and proved that it can power up when placed inside an existing cell.

Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” [The New York Times]

The technical achievement is worth crowing about. The researchers built on Venter’s trick from last year, in which he took the genome from one bacterium, transferred it the hollowed-out shell of a different bacterial species, and watched as the new cell “booted up” successfully. In this new step, the researchers built a genome from scratch, copying the genetic code from a bacterium that infects goats and introducing just a few changes as a “watermark”; then they transferred that synthetic genome to a cell. As the researchers report in Science, the cell functioned and replicated, creating more copies of the slightly altered goat-infecting bacterium–now nicknamed Synthia.

But the reactions to Venter’s accomplishment have been mixed–while some celebratory headlines trumpeted the creation of artificial life, many scientists said the reaction was overblown, and took issue with Venter’s claim of having created a truly synthetic cell. Here, we round up a selection of responses from all corners of the science world.

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan finds the philosophical ramifications of the work fascinating:

“Their achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein.” [Nature News]

But many experts say that since Venter copied a pre-existing genome, he didn’t really create a new life form.

“To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” said David Baltimore, a leading geneticist at Caltech. Dr. Baltimore described the result as “a technical tour de force” but not breakthrough science, but just a matter of scale…. “He has not created life, only mimicked it,” Dr. Baltimore said [The New York Times].

In addition, many experts note that the experimenters got a big boost by placing the synthetic genome in a preexisting cell, which was naturally inclined to make sense of the transplanted DNA and to turn genes on and off. Thus, they say, it’s not accurate to label the experiment’s product a true “synthetic cell.”

Peter Griffin at Science Blogs

Carl Zimmer at Discover Magazine:

Anyway–this news just hit the wires thanks to an embargo break, so I don’t have time to go into more detail. Joe Palca at NPR has posted his article on the subject. For background, please check out these stories I’ve written about this general area of research:

Tinker, Tailor: Can Venter Stitch Together A Genome From Scratch?

The Meaning of Life

The Six Most Important Experiments In The World

Artificial Life? Old News.

The High-Tech Search For A Cleaner Biofuel Alternative

On the Origin of Tomorrow

My Bloggingheads interview with Venter

Sean at Discover Magazine:

Who knows exactly what this means as yet — but it’s important! You can argue if you like about whether it’s really “artificial life” — that argument has already started, and already seems boring. There are also speculations about designing microorganisms to help us solve problems like global warming or (let’s say) massive oil spills. Not completely crazy speculations, either. But there’s a long way to go before anything like that is coming off a biological assembly line. And eventually we’ll be going much further than that, beyond designer microorganisms into much weirder terrain. This isn’t a culmination, it’s just a start.

Alex Tabarrok:

Two years ago I wrote that Craig Venter was one step closer to becoming a god.  Today it appears he has done it.

Megan McArdle:

In an earlier post on Lidar, someone said that I shouldn’t call it “miraculous”.  But it’s hard to think of another word for synthesizing life.

Rod Dreher:

Haters! Luddites! What could it hurt?

I ask sarcastically, but if scientists can make a simple organism with entirely synthesized DNA, why could they not in theory create a human being whose entire self will have been designed by a scientist? What would that say about human dignity? Do you really trust humankind not to use that power to create races of masters and slaves? I don’t. The abolition of man, indeed.

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