Last week I appeared on bloggingheads.tv, talking about life in all its weirdness with science writer John Horgan. The folks at bloggingheads.tv wondered if I'd come back, perhaps bringing along a scientist to talk to. I said, Of course. The scientist I've invited along is Craig Venter.
In the 1990s Venter pioneered methods for sequencing the human genome, racing government scientists to finish the first complete draft. Last month he and his colleagues published a highly accurate read of his own genome, including both sets of chromosomes he got from his parents. He and his colleagues have also trawled the oceans for millions of genes, creating an enormous database for marine biologists to study to understand how microbes control the planet's chemistry. They've sequenced the genomes of organisms ranging from parasitic bacteria to monkeys.
But what Venter is getting the most attention for these days is his quest to make artificial life. I've spoken to Venter a couple times about this project (see, for example, this article I wrote back in 2003 when Venter first announced it). Earlier this year Venter took another step towards this goal by transplanting the genome of one species of bacteria into another. Now they're working on building a synthetic genome to insert into a bacterial host. Last I checked, they were months away.
So it was with some puzzlement that I heard rumors on Friday that Venter was already done and just about to make an announcement. It turned out that the Guardian was publishing an article Saturday that breathlessly opened as follows:
Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.
The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as Monday at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.
Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be "a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before".
This article ricocheted all over the world, picked up excitedly by other media outlets and bloggers. But if you look closely at the story, it's not quite what it seems. It doesn't actually say who told the reporter that the chromosome was finished or that it might be revealed today. Venter himself is quoted to the effect not that the experiment will be an important step, but that it would be. Venter has been saying this sort of stuff ever since the genome transplant was published. It's no secret that Venter and his colleagues are working on this--but what evidence is there that he's done and about to announce? Was it a coincidence that the Guardian published this questionable story a couple days before they published an excerpt from Craig Venter's new memoir?
To see if my hunch was right, I checked in with Heather Kowalski, spokesperson for the J. Craig Venter Institute. This morning she sent me an email confirming what I had suspected...
Dr. Venter and the synthetic genomics team at the Venter Institute have not yet created synthetic life. While progress is being made toward this goal, it has not yet been achieved. When they do so, they will submit the work to a scientific journal for peer review with the hope that it will be published. Any announcements or publications on the synthetic organism are likely still months away.
Creating life from scratch will be big news, no doubt. But it's distressing that the Guardian managed to get so much press for a carefully worded non-story. I could find only one outlet, Agence France Press, that bothered to fact-check the Guardian story themselves. And even while they quoted Kowalski, they also wrote that "Venter told Britain's The Guardian newspaper Saturday that he has built a synthetic chromosome using chemicals made in a laboratory, and is set to announce the discovery within weeks, possibly as early as Monday." It's as if we journalists were playing a child's game of telephone, rather than actually reporting stories. Not a proud day for the profession.
Next week I'll be sure to ask Venter where things really stand with the project. (If all goes according to plan, we'll be talking on Monday, and the conversation should be posted by Tuesday.) I've got plenty of other questions to ask as well--about his many other projects, the ethical questions they raise, and their potential to change our lives. I'm also curious to know what questions you'd like to ask. Leave them in the comment thread, and I'll pick some to include in my conversation with Venter.
Photo: Evan Hurd
"synthesis of life"??? What, is the cytoplasm mere putty? So he can synthesize a minimal chrosmosome? Great. But this is not equivalent to synthesizing the organism. Synthesizing cytoplasm: Now THAT's hard
Mr Venter told the Guardian ....
Craig Venter didn't spend 6 years in mad scientist school to be referred to as "Mister".
You spoke to Venter? Don't you feel...dirty?
I would ask Dr Venter about how fast he thinks the technology will progress after making the first artificial chromosome. Usually the first will be the hardest. How long time until we can make artificial eukaryotic chromosome?
I'd also be interested in the technique they are using. Is it similar to what was used when the first virus genome was made?
I'm not entirely sure about the bacterial genome, but at least in eukaryotes the genome has usually a lot of proteins attached, like histones and regulatory proteins. I'm aware that there's no such thing as histones in bacteria, but might not the absent of regulatory proteins or other attached proteins on the newly made chromosome make it hard to "boot up" the bacteria?
They've already managed to "boot up" a large protein-free prep of a bacterial chromosome. Now they'll try to do it with a proteinless synthetic chromosome. That said, I saw the dates on some of the figures from the experiments they just published a few weeks ago, and they were done nearly 18 months ago. That said, I suspect they've already successfully transplanted a synthetic genome, but just aren't ready to talk about it for legal reasons (you can't patent something that has already been publicly disclosed).
All the noises the JCVI folks are making suggest that they're already done, they just can't talk about it yet.
How does Venter see his work as a better alternative than synthetic biology for solving the problems that face humankind? Why go to the extreme of replacing the entire genome if you can insert modules that will make the organism do what you want?
Also: it is a popular argument in the creationist camp that there must be a god because so far the all-knowing scientists have failed to create an entirely new lifeform. (Don't ask me for the logic behind this.) But it is predictable that once scientists DO manage to create entirely new lifeforms, the ID/creationist camp will then argue that this shows that life MUST have been designed by a creator. Does Venter have any thoughts about the consequences of his actions on this debate?
"But it is predictable that once scientists DO manage to create entirely new lifeforms, the ID/creationist camp will then argue that this shows that life MUST have been designed by a creator."
No it won't. It will illustrate how life can(did! does!) arise from perfectly UN-supernatural forces.
The last two comments are right in line with the question I wanted you to ask Dr. Venter: "Does this make you a creationist?"
Obviously the question is partly in jest, but the underlying issues are highlighted by KDM and Brian Baker...and I'm very interested in Dr. Venter's perspective on what will undoubtedly be a very controversial topic.
I am so shallow. I routinely use "Cracking the Code" in my classes, so I get lots of shots of Craig at the time of filming, therefore when I saw this picture I thought "OMG Craig Venter is like a million years old all of a sudden!"
Yeah, that's all I've got at the moment.
Wont it be dangerous to write a program in a language which we have understood fully, on a operating system yet to be deciphered.
On the second thought, thats precisely what hackers do!
Animesh, that's a very interesting analogy and yet I think it overstates our understanding of the genome. I would posit that we are writing DNA in a fashion similar to our understanding of a long-extinct language- we've deciphered the alphabet, and even managed to put together a decent vocabulary and figure out some general rules of grammar and punctuation. However, we are far from fluent and would not be able to fool a native speaker. The artificial chromosome may indeed "work", but my guess is that it works for reasons that even the scientists who constructed it do not fully understand. Something is always lost in translation...