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The First Synthetic Cell

After years of painstaking research and experimentation, genomic pioneer J. Craig Venter has accomplished a long-awaited goal: he and his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute have introduced a synthetic genome into bacterial cells that can grow and replicate itself. Some have gone as far as calling this engineered bacterium a new form of artificial life, though Venter has opted for the term “synthetic cell.” Whatever you call it, it’s a major milestone in the growing field of synthetic biology. Christina Agapakis and PZ Myers had some of the first in-depth reactions to the breaking news. And if you want to know more about Venter himself, check his manifesto on the future of science in Seed Magazine: Bigger Faster Better.

Now that we’ve all had a few days to let it fully sink in, the Monday morning synthetic biologists are debating what this all actually means. Did Venter really create new life? Play God? Simply (or not so simply) push the technological limits of his field? All or none of the above? Answers to those questions are rolling in from the scientific community (and criticisms are pouring in from without) though the mainstream press had been so far oddly quiet about what could be “a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.”

The quote at the end of that last paragraph comes from Freeman Dyson, whose reaction to Venter’s synthetic bacterium is up at Edge.org, Alongside it are short essays from Rodney Brooks, Richard Dawkins, Nassim N. Taleb, Daniel C. Dennett, Dimitar Sasselov, Antony Hegarty, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly,George Church (who also contributed to Nature’s reaction round-up), and our own PZ Myers,

Over at Pharyngula, PZ has begun compiling a list of doom-saying opinion pieces and is picking them off one-by-one. Of course, PZ puts a caveat in the title of his take-down: these are only the ill-informed criticisms. Amongst the biologically informed, the debate is really about whether Venter’s creation is really a conceptual breakthrough and a new form of life, or merely hard-won technical feat. That debate precariously balances on the definition of life itself, a topic worth revisiting in this Carl Zimmer cover story from Seed Magazine.

And If you want to go straight to the source, the full text of the Venter et. al. paper has been made freely available on Science‘s site. There’s also Venter’s press conference, below:

Comments

  1. #1 Alan Filipski
    May 27, 2010

    “Synthetic genome” would be a much more accurate (though much more modest) descriptor than “synthetic cell,” would it not? A prokaryotic cell is a far more complex object than a genome, in terms of layers, components and molecular machinery made of a big variety of organic molecules, assembled just so, ready to do, at a very minimum, transcription and translation, before the thing will even boot. Until someone does this, the vitalists won’t concede anything.
    Alan Filipski

  2. #2 mswzebo
    June 15, 2010

    But ‘synthetic genome’ inaccurately implies that you just have abiotically-made DNA…here, the synthetic genome goes into a functioning cell, displaces the resident genome, and uses the present transcription /translation machinery to produce proteins encoded and regulated by the synthetic genome. After many generations (but not so long in real-time, because these are bacterial generations) – only macromolecules encoded by the synthetic genome are present.

    You seem to be focused on the fact that the synthetic genome needs to be inserted into a functioning cell to start the first generation. While perhaps this ‘hurdle’ could be overcome with more (expensive) research, it almost certainly won’t be overcome, because the only reason to address the ‘hurdle’ would be to satisfy some obscure philosophical point. The goals addressed by synthetic organisms are industrial, not philosophical – Venter is trying to make organisms that make cheap hydrogen and cheap hydrocarbon fuels. It is unlikely that your concern will ever be addressed because a)there is no particularly compelling need to address it and b) the time is better spent optimizing industrial processes. It’s not ‘truly’ artificial, according to your definition of ‘truly? So what – who cares whether ‘the vitalists concede anything’? If someone did waste a bunch of resources to address your concerns, you’d only move the goalposts anyway.

  3. #3 saç ekimi
    July 12, 2010

    Hi all;
    A fatal flaw was that they failed to have any representative posts ready to go up when the blog went live.

    Had they done so, and had the content been surprisingly acceptable, the reception might have been better.

    Instead we get this “Hi! Welcome to ShillBlog!” (crickets) and everyone, quite reasonably, expects the worst.

  4. #4 Dov Henis
    July 24, 2010

    More On Venter’s Transplant

    More On Venter’s New “Life Form”,
    Plain Ignorance

    “Is the “Synthetic Cell” about Life?”
    A bioethicist explores the soul of Venter’s new life form and of his experiment
    http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/57523/

    - “Heralded as the moment that science finally took the magic out of life.”
    * What magic is there in life? All life forms are mass formats comprising constrained energy. They ingest energy in order to survive as long as possible, to postpone their own conversion to energy that fuels the ongoing cosmic expansion. Where/what is the magic? Replication?

    - Venter has said that his achievement has changed the definition of life.
    * IMO my suggestion of the nature of life mass format is THE presently most updated scientific conception. I wonder what Venter’s definitions of life are for the prior and after the “Synthetic Cell”.

    A cell is a construction comprising resident life primal RNA genes and a variety of organs evolved by them. Archaic RNA genes were independent bare floating organisms, energized by direct solar radiation. Cells, cellular membranes, including the outer membrane, are organs evolved by the resident RNA genes. Genomes, DNA or RNA, are likewise functional organs evolved by the resident RNA genes.

    Life is, by our sensory conception, a virtual reality affair. Religion and “spiritualty” are virtual reality tools for going through life. The purpose of our life is ours to formulate and set. It derives solely from our cognition, which is a biologic entity.

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)
    03.2010 Updated Life Manifest
    http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/54.page#5065
    Cosmic Evolution Simplified
    http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/240/122.page#4427
    Gravity Is The Monotheism Of The Cosmos
    http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/260/122.page#4887
    EOTOE, Embarrassingly obvious TOE, expanding the horizon beyond Darwin And Einstein
    http://www.molecularfossils.com/2010/05/formal-test-of-theory-of-universal.html

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