Synthetic genomics: Building a better bacterium

Credit: Science magazine

The March 25 issue of Science magazine includes my latest Life Science Technologies feature, “Synthetic genomics: Building a better bacterium.” Driven by J. Craig Venter’s blockbuster announcement of a “synthetic cell,” this article looks at the technologies and challenges inherent in trying to craft a genome from the ground up.

To build Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, Venter and his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute ordered up 1,078 synthetic 1-kb cassetes from synthetic gene firm Blue Heron. They then assembled those pieces via recombination in yeast, building first 10-kb pieces, then 100-kb, and finally the complete 1,077,947-bp chromosome. Highlighting the importance of accurate DNA synthesis, a single error in the dnaA coding sequence set the team back three months.

The study attracted serious attention. Watchdog groups weighed in, as did US President Barack Obama. Arthur Caplan, writing in Nature, called the work “one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.” Others were more measured; New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade called the research “a matter of scale rather than a scientific breakthrough.” The U.K.’s Daily Mail, in a bit of nuanced headline writing (and while simultaneously invoking the specter of global pandemic as in the Will Smith movie, I Am Legend), declared: “Scientist accused of playing God after creating artificial life by making designer microbe from scratch—but could it wipe out humanity?

The answer to that question is unquestionably no. But, before researchers can hope to replicate Venter’s feat (which took 15 years and cost some $40 million), they’ll have to bone up on their biology. Venter’s study, says Raik Grünberg, a postdoctoral fellow in Barcelona who develops synthetic biological circuits, highlights not only a technological development, but also researchers’ biological ignorance. “It shows that we can now write genomes. But at the same moment everyone is realizing … we don’t really know what to write.”

Or, as Venter himself put it to the New Yorker in 2000, “My view of biology is, ‘We don’t know shit.’

~ by jeffreyperkel on April 8, 2011.

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