The Loom

Hither and Yon

For the past few days I’ve been rushing around, first to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to talk to some people at the Marine Biological Laboratory about the E. coli book, and then on an infinite chain of connecting flights to come out to Aspen to participate in a science-media summit. It’s a relief to be finally sitting down in one place, and the view of the mountains from here making blogging very fine. But until my blood thickens up a little, I probably won’t be writing much.

As I’ve been driving and flying and driving again, I’ve gotten some emails from readers, pointing me to new papers that have come out that they think are blog-worthy. My thanks go out to them–although it feels like cheating to have other people doing my research for me. One paper will have to wait a while, but another–Craig Venter’s “genome transplant” from one species of bacteria to another–is already old news in the blogosphere. If you are looking for a little historical context, you might want to check out my 2003 article in which I wrote about Venter’s artificial life project when it was just a twinkle in his eye. Other scientists argued that one of the biggest open questions was whether a cell could be booted up with a dramatically new genome. The new paper goes a pretty long way to delivering a verdict of yes on that question.

On the way home from Woods Hole, my wife and I listened to Craig Venter on Science Friday on NPR, and I thought it was a fairly good explanation of what his team did and why. This is definitely one of those stories that benefits from a little room to stretch–sound bites leave nothing but a chewed over corpse. You can listen to the interview here.

I’m hoping to blog a little while I’m out here about the summit itself, in which case I should have something more tomorrow. Or I may be popping aspirin for a bad altitude headache. We’ll see how it shakes out.

In the meantime–if you’re looking for a little food for thought, how about the possibility that alien life is here on Earth? My latest story in Discover.

Comments

  1. #1 Alan Kellogg
    June 30, 2007

    Speaking of life as we don’t know it, here’s an excerpt of an article on nanobacteria. While they are larger than paroviruses researchers aren’t even sure they have DNA or RNA. And keep your eyes open for a recent Scientific American with an article on what might have preceeded RNA as an instrument of heridity.

  2. #2 Jim Lemire
    June 30, 2007

    Carl –
    Not sure how familiar you are with what Venter accomplished (I am not), but do you know how this is different from the cloning techniques that are “commonplace” these days (i.e. somatic cell nuclear transfer)? In both cases the genome of one individual is placed into the cell of another. I get that there are technical differences in these techniques, but why is this considered such a big step towards synthetic life?

    I asked this question in a brief post over at my blog (but few, if anyone, stops by there), and also asked this over at Pharyngula (but my comment was quickly buried), so perhaps you can shed some light? Thanks!

  3. #3 Mark Powell
    June 30, 2007

    If it’s not too late to talk about science/media summit…

    “We don’t need no education” to quote Pink Floyd from The Wall. We don’t need more of the same, only more better.

    The new world is spawning a new kind of analysis, IMO. It’s not about more of the same. It’s about what I call high-bandwidth thinking. It’s the ability to scan many different streams of information. I used to scan Table of Contents of sci journals, and abstract services. This is WAY better.

    With a feed reader and lots of feeds, it’s possible to surf and “analyze” by breadth instead of depth. Either I’m sick or this is new, fun, and powerful.

    Whatever, thought I’d pitch it.

  4. #4 Lars Marius Garshol
    July 1, 2007

    From the Discover article:

    > The best evidence of the RNA world, though, would be finding
    > natural RNA-based life that is still lurking on Earth today.

    Like, uh, viruses?

  5. #5 Carl Zimmer
    July 1, 2007

    Jim [#2]: The differences between cloning and genome transplant include the fact that the dna of a different species was inserted. Also, a bacteria’s genome is “naked”–i.e., it isn’t packed away neatly in a nucleus. so nobody knew what would happen if you tried to jam it into another cell.

    Lars [4]: RNA viruses could, possibly, have evolved from DNA-based ancestors. But I was talking about a *free-living* RNA critter that made everything it needed to survive, instead of exploiting a host. Perhaps I should have been clearer.

  6. #6 Ex-drone
    July 1, 2007

    You mention Science Friday on NPR. I also recommend Quirks and Quarks on CBC Radio. It is available as a podcast on their website and has an archive that goes back to 1988.

  7. #7 Joseph Urban
    July 1, 2007

    In the latest New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson has published the Feature article entitled Our Biotech Future. One might like also to take a look at it?

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/20370

    You needn’t have an online subscription to read it.

  8. #8 Joseph Urban
    July 1, 2007

    Oh…yes…I should have added that the Woese article mentioned in Dyson’s note to his Feature article is also freely available in PDF format at:

    http://www.worldcat.org/wcpa/oclc/36145205?page=frame&url=http%3A%2F%2Fpubmedcentral.com%2Ftocrender.fcgi%3Faction%3Darchive%26journal%3D90&title=&linktype=digitalObject&detail=

    Very well worth the reading, for me at least, who is not so very familiar with … well, hardly anything! :-))

  9. #9 Jim Lemire
    July 1, 2007

    RE comments #2 and #5:

    1) Has anyone every tried putting the nucleus of one species into the anucleated egg of another (e.g., a mouse nucleus into a sheep egg)?

    2) Why would you not expect the “naked DNA” to function? Isn’t this just like inserting a plasmid on a grander scale?

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