Pharyngula

It’s ALIVE!

Get in the mood for this bit of news, the synthesis of an artificial organism by Craig Venter’s research team.

Here’s the equivalent of that twitching hand of Frankenstein’s monster:

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Those are two colonies of Mycoplasma mycoides, their nucleoids containing entirely synthesized DNA. You can tell because the synthesized DNA contained a lacZ gene for beta-galactosidase, making the pretty blue product. That’s one of the indicators that the artificial chromosome is functioning inside the cell; the DNA was also encoded with recognizable watermarks, and they also used a cell of a different species, M. capricolum, as the host for the DNA.

The experiment involved creating a strand of DNA as specified by a computer in a sequencing machine, and inserting it into a dead cell of M. capricolum, and then watching it revivify and express the artificial markers and the M. mycoides proteins. It really is like bringing the dead back to life.

It was also a lot more difficult than stitching together corpses and zapping it with lightning bolts. The DNA in this cell is over one million bases long, and it all had to be assembled appropriately with a sequencing machine. That was the first tricky part; current machines can’t build DNA strands that long. They could coax sequences about a thousand nucleotides long out of the machines.

Then what they had to do was splice over a thousand of these short pieces into a complete bacterial chromosome. This was done with a combination of enzymatic reactions in a test tube, and in vivo assembly by recombination inside yeast cells. The end result is a circular bacterial chromosome that is, in its sequence, almost entirely the M. mycoides genome…but made from a sequence stored in a computer rather than a parental bacterium.

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Finally, there was one more hurdle to overcome, getting this large loop of DNA into the husk of a cell. These techniques, at least, had been worked out last year in experiments in which they had transplanted natural M. mycoides chromosomes into bacteria.

The end result is a new, functioning, replicating cell. One could argue that it isn’t entirely artificial yet, since the artificial DNA is being placed in a cell of natural origin…but give it time. The turnover of lipids and proteins and such in the cytoplasm in the membrane means that within 30 generations all of the organism will have been effectively replaced, anyway.

It’s a very small cell that has been created — the mycoplasmas have the smallest genomes of any extant cells. It’s not much, but this is a breakthrough comparable to Wöhler’s synthesis of urea. That event was a revelation, because it broke the idea that organic chemicals were somehow special and incapable of synthesis from inorganic molecules. And that led to the establishment of the whole field of organic chemistry, and we all know how big and important that has become to our culture.

Venter’s synthesis of a simple life form is like the synthesis of urea in that it has the potential to lead to some huge new possibilities. Get ready for it.

If the methods described here can be generalized, design, synthesis, assembly, and transplantation of synthetic chromosomes will no longer be a barrier to the progress of synthetic biology. We expect that the cost of DNA synthesis will follow what has happened with DNA sequencing and continue to exponentially decrease. Lower synthesis costs combined with automation will enable broad applications for synthetic genomics.

We should be aware of the limitations right now, though. It was a large undertaking to assemble the 1 million base pair synthetic chromosome for a mycoplasma. If you’re dreaming of using the draft Neandertal sequence to make your own resynthesized caveman, you’re going to have to appreciate the fact that that is a job more than three orders of magnitude greater than building a bacterium. Also keep in mind that the sequence introduced into the bacterium was not exactly as intended, but contained expected small errors that had accumulated during the extended synthesis process.

A single transplant originating from the sMmYCp235 synthetic genome was sequenced. We refer to this strain as M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. The sequence matched the intended design with the exception of the known polymorphisms, 8 new single nucleotide polymorphisms, an E. coli transposon insertion, and an 85-bp duplication. The transposon insertion exactly matches the size and sequence of IS1, a transposon in E. coli. It is likely that IS1 infected the 10-kb sub-assembly following its transfer to E. coli. The IS1 insert is flanked by direct repeats of M. mycoides sequence suggesting that it was inserted by a transposition mechanism. The 85-bp duplication is a result of a non-homologous end joining event, which was not detected in our sequence analysis at the 10-kb stage. These two insertions disrupt two genes that are evidently non-essential.

So we aren’t quite at the stage of building novel new multicellular plants or animals — that’s going to be a long way down the road. But it does mean we can expect to be able to build custom bacteria within another generation, I would think, and that they will provide some major new industrial potential.

I know that there are some ethical concerns — Venter also mentions them in the paper — but I’m not personally too worried about them just yet. This cell created is not a monster with ten times the strength of an ordinary cell and the brain of a madman — it’s actually more fragile and contains only genes found in naturally occurring species (and a few harmless markers). When the techniques become economically practical, everyone will be building specialized bacteria to carry out very specific biochemical reactions, and again, they’re going to be poor generalists and aren’t going to be able to compete in survival with natural species that have been honed by a few billion years of selection for fecundity and survivability.

Give it a decade or two, though, and we’ll have all kinds of new capabilities in our hands. The ethical concerns now are a little premature, though, because we have no idea what our children and grandchildren will be able to do with this power. I don’t think Wöhler could have predicted plastics from his discovery, after all: we’re going to have to sit back, enjoy the ride, and watch carefully for new promises and perils as they emerge.


Gibson et al. (2010) Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome. Science Express.

Lartigue et al. (2009) Creating Bacterial Strains from Genomes That Have Been Cloned and Engineered in Yeast. Science 325:1693-1696.

Comments

  1. #1 Glen Davidson
    May 20, 2010

    We also might get some idea of how simple life could be without today’s evolutionary pressures.

    Quite a lot more, I’ll wager.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  2. #2 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    And that led to the establishment of the whole field of organic chemistry, and we all know how big and important that has become to our culture.

    One could only wish that were the case.

    :(

    I think chemistry ignorance is right up there with the rest of science ignorance. I’d bet it wouldn’t even take me long to find some cracker with a website who denies organic chemistry really HAS been important to humans.

    now to the fun bit…

    Give it a decade or two, though, and we’ll have all kinds of new capabilities in our hands.

    my plans for building an artificial flying-piranha army may be accelerating!

  3. #3 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    heh. sadly, not only did it not take me long to find someone poo-pooing the importance of organic chemistry knowledge…

    but it’s a dean of medicine FFS!

    http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/359/3/221

    one quote:

    Does a student, for example, really need a full year of organic chemistry to prepare for the study of biochemistry?

    having studied both, I’d have to say, yes, they do.

    to say otherwise is pretty fucking ignorant.

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    May 20, 2010

    Wha..? Yes, they do. Unless the organic course is organized to give the essential biochemical reactions in one semester, but even then…deeper knowledge is good for them.

  5. #5 JackC
    May 20, 2010

    If you stand off just a little bit, that second image looks a lot like a smug smiley-face with pretty blue eyes.

    JC

  6. #6 Deprogrammed
    May 20, 2010

    Amazing.

    I am so sick of fundies saying how special their imaginary god is because he supposedly created life. Every time we take a scientific leap like this their genocidal faux deity gets smaller and smaller. SWEEEEET!

  7. #7 Sven DiMilo
    May 20, 2010
    Does a student, for example, really need a full year of organic chemistry to prepare for the study of biochemistry?

    having studied both, I’d have to say, yes, they do.
    to say otherwise is pretty fucking ignorant.

    Count me in the fucking ignorant camp, then.
    The year of organic chemistry I had to take for my Zoology degree was the single greatest waste of time of my entire education. The nomenclature and ideas of isomers etc. were covered in the first few weeks and were the only relevant parts of the four courses (2 lectures, 2 labs) to biochemistry or, indeed, to biology at all. The rest was memorizing the names of reactions one can use to add a chloride to a benzene ring and similar shit that was only relevant to synthesizing organic chemicals. (Biochemistry itself was another story entirely; fascinating stuff, physiology writ small. The relevant organic was reviewed in like a lecture or 2.) I still have my organic text, and in the 25 years I have been a grad student and professional biologist I have never needed to open it even once.

    I can’t imagine what you’re remembering that could have been so different.

  8. #8 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    Wha..? Yes, they do. Unless the organic course is organized to give the essential biochemical reactions in one semester, but even then…deeper knowledge is good for them.

    yeah, go figure.

    …and that comment I quoted wasn’t just from any dean of medicine, it was from the Dean of the Dept. of Medical Education, HARVARD.

    *shakes head sadly*

  9. #9 KOPD
    May 20, 2010

    This is all very fascinating, but the real question is how this is going to help get me some fat-free bacon.

    Seriously, though, this is awesome.

  10. #10 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    If you stand off just a little bit, that second image looks a lot like a smug smiley-face with pretty blue eyes.

    heh, you’re right, and the micrometer measure is the mustache?

    I can’t imagine what you’re remembering that could have been so different.

    you must have had a very light biochem course then.

    Ours relied heavily on the things I learned in O-chem, and in O-chem lab.

  11. #11 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    …as to direct relevance…

    I spent 3 years studying organometallic and organochloride contamination in marine food chains. What I learned in O-chem was not only relevant, but damn near essential in understanding the reactions that take place.

    Not, of course, saying your experiences necessitated the information, but to ignore it’s relevance is most certainly a personal decision.

    to extrapolate that in general seems dangerous to me.

  12. #12 Sven DiMilo
    May 20, 2010

    Unless the organic course is organized to give the essential biochemical reactions in one semester, but even then…deeper knowledge is good for them.

    When was the last time you talked to your students about their organic course? If there are organic chem courses that actually cover “the essential biochemical reactions” then I’m all for it but have yet to ever hear of one.
    Here, have a look. Note the emphasis. It’s not on biochemistry at all, it’s all about synthetic laboratory chemistry. Alkenes and alkanes. Feh!

  13. #13 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    it’s->its

    grr.

  14. #14 PZ Myers
    May 20, 2010

    Sven — your zoology degree. I agree that when I was mostly doing cellular work, the old chem stuff was too much finicky detail with little relevance, but the deeper you get into mobio the more important it becomes.

    We’ve actually talked about reducing the requirement for ochem here at umm to one semester, but getting the chem dept. to tinker with the syllabus a bit to get the essentials into the fall semester. But I would still recommend that they take the full one year program, just because you never know when that knowledge might be useful.

  15. #15 davem
    May 20, 2010

    At what point does the new cell become ‘alive’? You say the cell was dead beforehand, and the DNA is presumably ‘dead’, so what kicks the final assembly into life?

  16. #16 Tulse
    May 20, 2010

    From the press release:

    As in the team?s 2008 publication in which they described the successful synthesis of the M. genitalium genome, they designed and inserted into the genome what they called watermarks. These are specifically designed segments of DNA that use the ?alphabet? of genes and proteins that enable the researcher to spell out words and phrases. The watermarks are an essential means to prove that the genome is synthetic and not native, and to identify the laboratory of origin. Encoded in the watermarks is a new DNA code for writing words, sentences and numbers. In addition to the new code there is a web address to send emails to if you can successfully decode the new code, the names of 46 authors and other key contributors and three quotations: “TO LIVE, TO ERR, TO FALL, TO TRIUMPH, TO RECREATE LIFE OUT OF LIFE.” – JAMES JOYCE; “SEE THINGS NOT AS THEY ARE, BUT AS THEY MIGHT BE.?-A quote from the book, ?American Prometheus?; “WHAT I CANNOT BUILD, I CANNOT UNDERSTAND.” – RICHARD FEYNMAN.

    Whenever a fundie asks what evidence would convince you of a Designer, point to this.

  17. #17 Sven DiMilo
    May 20, 2010

    The question you raised was organic chemistry’s relevance to medical school biochemistry, not to studying environmental contamination by synthesized organic chemicals. My biochem was standard college-level stuff, with Stryer as the text. I repeat: I learned nothing relevant in organic that wasn’t covered (much more clearly) in the intro to that text.

    Oh, and:

    Those are two colonies of Mycoplasma mycoides, their nuclei containing entirely synthesized DNA.

    Ain’t no nuclei.

  18. #18 PZ Myers
    May 20, 2010

    Quite right.

  19. #19 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    May 20, 2010

    Even an old O-chem lecturer like myself could see that a specially designed one-semester course would be a primer for the biochemistry course. Not sure it would fit into a 10 week quarter though…

  20. #20 A. Nuran
    May 20, 2010

    Wow. That is an amazing accomplishment. I see trips to Sweden in someone’s future.

  21. #21 snurp
    May 20, 2010

    It’s a very small cell that has been created ? the mycoplasmas have the smallest genomes of any extant cells.

    Way to trample on Buchnera aphidicola BCc’s feelings, PZ. Even Gibson’s paper specified that it was smallest known for an “organism capable of independent growth in the laboratory.”

  22. #22 Vene
    May 20, 2010

    I’m a recent graduate and was a biotechnology major, and I have to say that organic chemistry was useful when I got to biochemistry. Even just because the knowledge I gained from organic meant that I could understand the mechanism of reactions that enzymes catalyze including how they interact with the enzyme. When you look at a biochemical pathway and the reactions that are occurring, you see that they are organic reactions.

    I probably could have done without organic chem, it’s very possible that I would have done just fine in biochemistry without it. But, organic chemistry helped me get a greater understanding of the subject. Which is especially important when you consider that the graduates from a biotechnology program are likely going to be doing a bit of chemistry. Especially when you consider that biochemistry types need to be familiar with organic chemistry techniques like NMR, which I know has been getting more and more use in biochemical labs.

    Maybe organic chemistry wasn’t very useful for your zoology degree, but it was incredibly useful for me. I also have to wonder how much biochem lab work you did, just because my university only required the biochem and biotech students to take the labs, even if other majors like chemistry and pre-med had to take biochemistry.

  23. #23 hje
    May 20, 2010

    Organic needs to be taught with an emphasis on mechanism. I took the course twice, once as an undergrad with a prof that just made us memorize names & reactions. Learned little. Took it again before grad school with a younger prof that introduced structure & mechanism early on, SN1, SN2, and so on … Huge difference in terms of providing insight into what is otherwise a bunch of seemingly arbitrary recipes,. It provided a lot of clarity when I got on to mechanisms of enzyme catalyzed reactions (such as in Christopher Walsh’s textbook).

    I only wish I could get our organic profs to spend more time on bio-organic chemistry (especially the chemistry of nucleic acids and proteins). Most of our students our not going on to careers in the chemical industry, yet the course often seems to be biased toward non-biological applications. End rant.

  24. #24 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    Ok, I duly apologize for making O-chem the OT subject of this thread.

    seriously, what Venter has done here is the story!

    It’s really hard for me to grasp the amount of *work* that went into this accomplishment.

    …and I’m feeling sorry for all the grad students who I’m sure put in many late nights :)

  25. #25 Feynmaniac, Chimerical Toad
    May 20, 2010

    I thought this was a liberal/atheist blog! Can someone direct me to a site where I could get conservative/religion-bashing?

    /can’t ever win

  26. #26 monad
    May 20, 2010

    If you’re dreaming of using the draft Neandertal sequence to make your own resynthesized caveman, you’re going to have to appreciate the fact that that is a job more than three orders of magnitude greater than building a bacterium.

    Plus it involves building way more than just DNA! Eukaryotic cells have a lot of specific structure to them, some of which is set by the parent. Of course, it’s a far way from urea to morphine, too.

  27. #27 ThirdMonkey
    May 20, 2010

    Very cool!

    I can already imagine the Build-A-Pet Workshop(tm) in my local mall.

  28. #28 tacroy
    May 20, 2010

    We should be aware of the limitations right now, though. It was a large undertaking to assemble the 1 million base pair synthetic chromosome for a mycoplasma. If you’re dreaming of using the draft Neandertal sequence to make your own resynthesized caveman, you’re going to have to appreciate the fact that that is a job more than three orders of magnitude greater than building a bacterium.

    On the other hand, the Human Genome Project took ten years and three billion dollars. Now I can get my genome sequenced for $100,000 in less than a year, and the companies that provide this service claim that their prices will plummet in the next decade.

    This project’s been running since 1995; who’s to say that I won’t be buying my grandchildren “Build Your Own Sourdough Yeast” kits someday?

  29. #29 Ben Goren
    May 20, 2010

    This is fuckin’ HUGE!

    Some implications:

    Protein synthesis: just sequence the DNA of something that already makes said protein and write it back out to a bacterium. If necessary, fiddle with the sequence before writing it out.

    Vaccines: see above.

    Materials science: see above.

    Research: write out every possible DNA sequence for a particular gene, including sequences that aren’t found in nature. See what happens.

    Bootstrapping: the genes that control cell structure can be tinkered with. Create a bacterium that makes an empty cell that’s especially easy for you to work with. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Some day, somebody will make a crocoduck, and Venter’s work will be credited as the foundation.

    Cheers,

    b&


    EAC Memographer
    BAAWA Knight of Blasphemy
    “All but God can prove this sentence true.”

  30. #30 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    Protein synthesis: just sequence the DNA of something that already makes said protein and write it back out to a bacterium. If necessary, fiddle with the sequence before writing it out.

    http://www.iptv.org/exploremore/ge/what/insulin.cfm

    like that?

  31. #31 ashleyfmiller
    May 20, 2010

    It’s really impressive and all that but every time I see that picture all I can think is:

    It’s LOOKING at me!

  32. #32 Ströh
    May 20, 2010

    Whether or not biochemistry is necessary for a proper of understanding microbiology probably depends on which level you’re going to use that microbio.

    As a med-student I’ve had my fair cramming of microbio. Most of it was focussed into one of the singlehandedly most loathed courses we’ve taken so far – at the post-exam party some of my friends literally burnt their notes in an outdoor BBQ. In January. In Sweden. Don’t get me wrong, in both retrospect and prospect it has and will pay off big time but the pure minutiae is exhausting.

    For us, extended understanding of chemistry does not really pay off since microbio is only of secondary importance to the understanding of biomed as an M.D. We can focus on understanding it on a molecular protein level and make only small forays into chemistry when it comes to things like polarity and reaction dynamics. Anything below that is fairly inconsequential to a clinical understanding of disease.

    But for anyone who treats microbio as a prime area, biochem must be as important as microbio is to a clinical physician. How can you be expected to understand the behavior and functions of proteins and enzymes if you can’t trace it to their basis in molecules?

  33. #33 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    We should be aware of the limitations right now, though. It was a large undertaking to assemble the 1 million base pair synthetic chromosome for a mycoplasma. If you’re dreaming of using the draft Neandertal sequence to make your own resynthesized caveman

    naww.

    I’m thinking of things like producing living fabrics; bio-clothing that adapts to local conditions.

    well, that and an army of flying piranha.

    …I’ve got to stop mentioning my plans for world domination.

  34. #34 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    Anything below that is fairly inconsequential to a clinical understanding of disease.

    but as an undergrad, nobody is precisely sure that they will become a clinician, or end up in research, or even be a clinician relying on research, or hell, even become an undergraduate instructor of pre-med students…

  35. #35 Ströh
    May 20, 2010

    Ichthyic:

    No, but the ones who decide to take such a path will get the chance later on to pick up the necessary biochem.

    It just isn’t cost effective to push a lot of clinically unnecessary studies into the undergrad ed which is already stretched to the limit time-wise, not mentioning it suffering from extreme curriculum overload.

  36. #36 Sven DiMilo
    May 20, 2010

    I’ll shut up about my deep and abiding grudge/hatred of organic chemistry. More power to those who found the travail useful in some way; I did not.

    I stand by my conviction, though, that at least 80% of a typical one-year organic lecture series (and damn near all of the labs) is completely irrelevant to biology in general and med-school biochem in particular. I invite anyone who doubts that to try the exercise I just did: google “organic chemistry syllabus” and take a look at a random 5. It’s still the same old shit I remember in my nightmares and that my (biology) students complain about regularly.

    I still recommend the full year, though, because it’s required for the major. It’s required for the major because it’s always been required for the major and that’s mainly because medical schools have always required it.

    The piece by the Harvard Dean of Medical Ed (who, I don’t know, might be expected to know something about the necessary preparation for med school) suggests that changes are in the wind, but they will be gradual.

  37. #37 Mattir
    May 20, 2010

    @Ichthyic – so what’s the impact of this research on the production of yummy sheep products?

  38. #38 Paul Brown
    May 20, 2010

    Just so I understand this …

    There is now something ‘alive’ that does not trace it’s ancestry back from our collective, common ancestor? Except — I suppose — that this thing was created by us.

    Because that’s kinda seriously …. woah.

  39. #39 davidius
    May 20, 2010

    So does this mean we’ll be able to create life, put it on another planet, and eventually create a Scientology-like religion in which they all worship us earthlings?

    {Before finally shedding the veil of religion and defeating us in all-out war.)

  40. #40 Zetetic
    May 20, 2010

    Mattir @ #37

    so what’s the impact of this research on the production of yummy sheep products?

    Well…Nothing baaaad.

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. [ducks]

    ——————————————————————————————————

    In all seriousness, I was so waiting for this breakthrough. So much for the “vital spark” of life, LOL.

    To quote xkcd:
    “SCIENCE. IT WORKS, BITCHES.”

  41. #41 Vene
    May 20, 2010

    @#35

    Okay, so what do you do at a smallish state university where the biochemistry, chemistry, and pre-med majors all take the same biochemistry course? If anything, that should be more geared to the chemistry aspects of it, stuff that requires an understanding of organic chemistry, than the clinical aspects of it.

  42. #42 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    @Ichthyic – so what’s the impact of this research on the production of yummy sheep products?

    yummy nothing!

    Buffybot already has her eye on sheep that grow various kinds of her favorite sock-wool; pre-dyed and spun.

    not to mention how much easier it will be for her to make felted punishment shorts.

    *ahem*

  43. #43 IslandBrewer
    May 20, 2010

    Wait, what?

    If undergrads don’t take Organic Chem Lab for a full year, how are they going to scrounge all the necessary equipment for making bongs?

  44. #44 Ströh
    May 20, 2010

    @#41: That wouldn’t be a problem here in Sweden since that situation doesn’t exist. There are only seven med-schools here to begin with and you are only allowed to teach med if you can support a stand-alone education in the first place. I guess that’s the problem with discussing these things on a global setting, local differences abound.

    In your example I would agree with you. If the course is not integrated solely into a clinically-oriented education you have to make accommodations for the other majors. I don’t see this as a good thing though. It would be best if everyone had their own courses.

  45. #45 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    If undergrads don’t take Organic Chem Lab for a full year, how are they going to scrounge all the necessary equipment for making bongs?

    I think I’m beginning to like you.

    :)

  46. #46 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    There are only seven med-schools here to begin with

    ouchie. and i thought premed schools were overcrowded in the States!

  47. #47 Sven DiMilo
    May 20, 2010

    if you’re in your second semester of organic and still don’t have a bong, you…

    well, you probably stand a good chance of passing organic.

    hmmmm…

  48. #48 Vene
    May 20, 2010

    @#44

    I have a question then, here in the States to get into med school you have to have a bachelors degree and take a standardized test, then get accepted into the school (very rough overview), what is it like for Sweden? Because from what you wrote it sounds more like you go right for the medical degree from the start.

  49. #49 6-bleen-7
    May 20, 2010

    Anyone else see a pair of blue nipples?

  50. #50 Pierce R. Butler
    May 20, 2010

    JackC @ # 5: … that second image looks a lot like a smug smiley-face with pretty blue eyes.

    Don’t you recognize him? The timing ought to make it perfectly clear.

    Before today, most people didn’t know that Mohammed had blue eyes…

  51. #51 Childermass
    May 20, 2010

    I guess that someone could now claim that common descent is been falsified since there are now organisms that not connected the rest of the biosphere by common descent. Not that this would really be of any use to the creationists except to misquote.

    A biologist like Richard Dawkins might point out that the DNA got replicated into a computer file which got put back into DNA. The point being that the replicated info is more important than a mere DNA chain. After many think that information shifted from an RNA world to a DNA world and some suggest other such “worlds.” If they ever design the sequence from scratch then the point would be become moot.

  52. #52 Ströh
    May 20, 2010

    @48: Yes, you do. Although I have always admired the sentiment in the US system I guess our way of doing it speeds it up a bit.

    For us it works this way:

    -First, you need to choose a program at high-school that gives you the necessary qualifications. Only the Natural Sciences program with an additional Sciences focus does this, as it is the only program that provides you with the needed “advanced” physics, biology and chemistry courses. Either that or you can attend a preparatory year at college if you’re from another program. Many of my friends have done this.

    – The next step is to apply to a med-school. Since med-schools are highly popular and have a 1,000-to-1 applicant-to-student ratio, you either need the maximum achievable grades or the maximum achievable score on what is roughly our equivalence to your SAT’s, called the University Exam. The latter can be taken once every semester and defines score on a normalized scale – 0.8 % are give the top score which is 2.0. That was my way in after four attempts. Even with a maxed-out score you still have to go through a lottery.

    – Then you’re in. Med-school is roughly consisting of a 2 year pre-grad and a 3,5 year post-grad part, called pre-clinical and post-clinical parts. After that you have to work 9 months as an intern in some capacity before receiving your license, followed by an extended number of years of half time work half time study to become a specialist, roughly equivalent of a resident position.

    Those who choose to go into research can either do that immediately after post-grad (since being licensed is only important to clinicians) or anywhere from that point, possibly but not necessarily combining it with clinical work.

    So that’s the way it looks. Driven and lucky students can get through the process quickly – get in at 17, be licensed at 23. It is exceedingly rare however, the average age at first attendance is in the upper 20s.

  53. #53 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    I guess that someone could now claim that common descent is been falsified since there are now organisms that not connected the rest of the biosphere by common descent.

    that would be more accurate, if we could indeed design an organism that functioned without having any need to rely on previous models for the blueprints.

    In fact, this is just the opposite!

    another example of how common descent means we can re-use existing blueprints to create “new” life.

  54. #54 Ströh
    May 20, 2010

    Oh and I almost forgot: besides this, there is a much numerically smaller education called something that roughly translates as “med-school with a research focus” and it does what it says on the label.

    Besides offering a med-school training it adds in bits like biochem to allow for an increased future capacity as a researcher. For some reason it is not really meriting for anything else, though.

  55. #55 chaseacross
    May 20, 2010

    Hmm, how about engineering up an organism that could eat away at an atheroma? We could save, what, like 100,000 people per day? Venter, get cracking.

  56. #56 Ströh
    May 20, 2010

    Not to mention artificial T-killer cells designed to kill tumors, and only tumors! In your face, Cancer!

  57. #57 chaseacross
    May 20, 2010

    Ooh, and maybe HIV-resistant Th cells… In your face, HIV and AIDS!

  58. #58 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    hmm, all of a sudden I’m starting to recall a book by Greg Bear I read once…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_Music

  59. #59 Cobolt
    May 20, 2010

    @56 & 57
    Beat me to it, but not just medical applications. Custom designed bacterium to:
    -convert plant matter to fuel more efficiently.
    -“eat” oils spills at a great rate of knots or even clean delicate areas affected by oils spills – Louisiana anyone?
    -breakdown “non-biodegradable” material that is currently being dumped.

    The opportunities are endless until some asshat decides this is a completely unethical and shuts the whole thing down.

  60. #60 theflyingtrilobite
    May 20, 2010

    One of your best posts ever, PZ.

  61. #61 Ströh
    May 20, 2010

    @ 59 You might want to keep your artificial organisms away from degrading plutonium, however. Imagine the horror scream from Prince Charles. You could end up rupturing the eardrums of everyone in Britain!

  62. #62 Glen Davidson
    May 20, 2010

    Meanwhile in stupid land, Dembski writes:

    Also, does such a cell knowably signal design and, if so, why wouldn?t cells untouched by Synthetic Genomics do the same, i.e., implicate design?

    UD

    You know, like an H-bomb implicates design of the fusion reactions in the sun. It’s so obvious.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  63. #63 Ichthyic
    May 20, 2010

    It’s so obvious.

    *sigh*

  64. #64 Chuck VA
    May 20, 2010

    The second image looks like the money you can save by switching to Geico.

  65. #65 Don Kane
    May 20, 2010

    Doesnt this mean that Venter is a god?

    I think we should start a new religion, Venterism, one where the Venterists can go to church and practice intelligent design….

  66. #67 Neil
    May 20, 2010

    That second image…I suppose it could be a face, or the Geico money stack…but to me, it just looks like it must be REALLY cold in that lab…

  67. #68 Shplane
    May 20, 2010

    And thus man comes one step closer to replacing himself. With hyperintelligent space dinosaurs.

  68. #69 Insightful Ape
    May 20, 2010

    But I do think concerns for misuse are real.
    Will someone, some day, synthesize a Y. Pestis?

  69. #70 Tulse
    May 20, 2010

    You know, like an H-bomb implicates design of the fusion reactions in the sun. It’s so obvious.

    You really think the ID folks would disagree with that?

  70. #71 Autumn
    May 21, 2010

    @Insightful Ape,
    What would it matter if someone synthesized Y. pestis? It already exists in the wild, and any transcription errors that are introduced would not have been vetted by evoloution, so it would likely be a weakened version that would be out-competed by natural versions.

  71. #72 Yubal
    May 21, 2010

    Uhm, well. Besides that this experiment is no surprise whatsoever and also provides no novel insight in the matter of Biology I still think it was important someone did it, just to show that the the prediction based on all our contemporary knowledge was correct.

    Sometimes science is just a pain in the neck, but hey, sometime you got prove the obvious or repeat other people results just to triple check a model. One day someone else will do that for you, too.

  72. #73 Cents
    May 21, 2010

    How well does this fit in Kurweil predictions for the future? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Singularity_Is_Near

  73. #74 Yubal
    May 21, 2010

    Oh, Yeah, right, it’s engineering, not science, where did I lost my mind. Good job guys.

    Time to go to bed for me.

  74. #75 avattoir
    May 21, 2010

    “This cell created is … actually more fragile and contains only genes found in naturally occurring species (and a few harmless markers).”

    The lads at South Park will be so pleased that Venter has created Butters.

  75. #76 jcmartz.myopenid.com
    May 21, 2010

    Keep an eye for the frankenstein monster!

  76. #77 idiotiddidit#5116d
    May 21, 2010

    It is no wonder Ichthyic reached the millionth post milestone — I believe he had almost half a million posts in this thread alone. :-)

    Keep up the good work.

  77. #78 Meathead
    May 21, 2010

    It will be interesting to see how the right wing mass media deals with this. Will they rejoice that there are now new money making opportunities in synthetic biology or pander to the religious nutcases who will scream about “playing god”. I’m guessing mostly the latter. Bill O’ Reilly will probably squirt blood from his eyeballs over this.

    Whatever the response, the only thing that can be reliably predicted is that there will no effort to actually educate the American people about the real science involved and that in all likelihood ignorance will even spread. In short:

    Witchcraft!!!!

  78. #79 Tulse
    May 21, 2010

    Bill O’ Reilly will probably squirt blood from his eyeballs over this.

    Maybe Venter can whip something up to make that happen.

    (Although I suppose that hemorrhagic fever is caused by viruses — pity.)

  79. #80 armillary
    May 21, 2010

    Now we just need someone to get cracking on those extremophiles that we’ll seed Venus/Mars with. One planet isn’t enough!

  80. #81 DLC
    May 21, 2010

    Tulse @79 :
    Bull Orly has the sign-up sheet for the angry torch-bearing mob.
    I think Ken Ham and Bill Dembski will be bringing the battering ram.

  81. #82 Jadehawk, OM
    May 21, 2010

    huh. In Germany, organic chemistry is 11th grade (high-school) chemistry. I missed it because I spent that year in Canada, though. Dropped out of chemistry when I came back, because it no longer made any sense, since a lot of knowledge I didn’t have was assumed.

  82. #83 christophe-thill.myopenid.com
    May 21, 2010

    This is absolutely breathtaking. But we’re still far, far away from what I’d love to see : the re-creation, from old bits of DNA, of a thylacine, a dodo, and one of those lovely dwarf woolly mammoths that lived in Siberian islands, apparently not more than a few thousand years ago.

    Because there’s still the tricky part, the one that most mediatic comments seem to forget about. Getting the DNA in the cell, and the cell working, is just one little bit of the puzzle, when we’re talking about tetrapods. Then you have to manage the gestation and, you know, get the damned thing born. That’s the part they quickly and clumsily glossed over in “Jurassic Park”.

  83. #84 Peter Ashby
    May 21, 2010

    @Ichthyic

    Blood Music is one of the worst books I have ever read, and yes, I did finish it, in horrified fascination. Triangular vertebrae? seriously? The amount of biological ignorance in that book is astounding. it also doesn’t help that imho Bear can’t write for toffee. YMMV, obviously.

  84. #85 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawnmfT6aBFwl3MgiYcsQJa_mnknTQi96v7s
    May 21, 2010

    The more I think about it, the more I realize this is a huge moment that we should all take note of.

    On a slightly less propitious note: I loved the Frankenstein clip. I saw that last Halloween. One thing that the casual viewer might not pick up on is the reference to “violet ray.” To 30’s audiences this would have struck a cord since “Violet ray” emitters or radium water coolers were still in vogue and would be for another couple decades. They were supposedly the source of “living waters,” not dead water (or pure, healthy water as we know it today). Radium was consumed in mass quantities back then, often in its pure form (“Radithor”), thinking it was the source of health. Many died horribly because of it.

  85. #86 jenn
    May 21, 2010

    in love with ichthyic today, and thirsty.

  86. #87 Daurmith
    May 21, 2010

    This is SO COOL. A long way to go yet, and a lot of possible perils along the way, but it’s utterly fascinating and wonderful. Life is just a quirk of matter, and we are starting to get it now.

  87. #88 llewelly
    May 21, 2010

    Jadehawk, OM | May 21, 2010 3:45 AM:

    huh. In Germany, organic chemistry is 11th grade (high-school) chemistry. I missed it because I spent that year in Canada, though. Dropped out of chemistry when I came back, because it no longer made any sense, since a lot of knowledge I didn’t have was assumed

    There you go blaming Canada for your faults.

  88. #89 llewelly
    May 21, 2010

    Cents | May 21, 2010 12:45 AM:

    How well does this fit in Kurweil predictions for the future?

    It means Venter’s artificial bacteria will eat Kurzweil’s personal immortality for lunch.

  89. #90 ltbear
    May 21, 2010

    Why do they need the M. capricolum as the host for the DNA? Can they synthesize artificial enzymes to generate a whole living cell? You know, DNA Polymerase, RNA Polymerase, ribosomes.. I thought DNA was supposed to be the most difficult to create from scratch…

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