Getting Real About Synthetic Biology

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Getting Real About Synthetic Biology

On May 20, 2010, the prestigious journal Science1 published a scientific paper that is certain to have a bigger effect on history than landing men on the moon or breaking the sound barrier.  In that scientific paper, Craig Venter and his colleagues announced "the first self-replicating synthetic life form ever created." 

You will recall that Venter, an American biologist, led one of the two scientific efforts that resulted in the first successful sequencing of the human genome in 2000.  In 2005, he founded Synthetic Genomics, with the goal of creating man-made life forms and applying them to real-world problems.  It took Synthetic Genomics just five years to achieve its first major breakthrough.  How did Venter's team do it? 

They started by sequencing the genome of an existing bacterium, and storing the digitized sequence on a computer.  Then, they used a computer-driven machine that assembles DNA sequences from amino acids to synthesize a genome nearly identical to that of the original organism.  Finally, they inserted this synthetic genome into a different bacterium.  With the new DNA on board, the recipient bacterium followed the instructions of that synthetic DNA, immediately transforming itself into the same type of cell as the donor. 

From that moment forward, the organism began to reproduce billions of copies of itself.  Although the recipient bacterium was not synthetic, once the synthetic DNA was on board and the cell began reproducing, within 20 or 30 generations, there was none of the original protein left in any of the progeny cells.  At that point, it had become a
legitimate man-made product. 

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As Venter put it, "We call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer."

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When the scientists were creating the synthetic DNA, they made a few changes.  One of them was to include a so-called "watermark" in a section of non-essential DNA.  The "digital watermark" clearly identifies the DNA as Synthetic Genomics' intellectual property.  And it clearly shows up in the proteins of the billions of new cells, indicating that they are synthetic, not naturally occurring. 

This clearly represents a major milestone in the biological sciences.  No longer are we restricted to observing nature...

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