Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year Resolution 2010: Create Life

If things go to plan in 2010, it will be a year when we make some great strides in many fields of science.

It's been an eventful decade for advances in plant and animal biotechnology from 'Golden Rice' to 'Dolly the Sheep'; in mobile communications, from bluetooth and wireless internet to the ipod and the iphone; and in big science, we've set our sights on a visit to Mars and built (if not fully utilised yet) the largest electron collider in history.

While some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs arise from low-key research programmes, many can be flagged well in advance. Here's something special to look out for in 2010.

Life, but not as we know it.

Back in 2000, Craig Venter and a consortium of scientists announced to much fanfare that they had sequenced the entire human genome for the first time. The entire DNA library of human life had been logged for the first time.

In the later half of the decade, Venter set his sights on the area of synthetic biology, forming Synthetic Genomics, a company focused on utilising genetically modified organisms to produce clean fuels. In 2009, the oil giant ExxonMobil announced a $600 million collaboration with Venter's company research and develop a next generation of biofuels.

In October 2007, Synthetic Genomics announced that they plan to inject a synthetic chromosome into a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium to create the first ever man-made species.

Venter plans to use the knowledge his team has garnered by sequencing genomes to construct the chromosome - a piece of tightly packed DNA or genetic infromation. Once it is tightly packed they will inject it into the bacterium which is commonly found in the respiratory and genital tracts of primates (hence it's name).

Mycoplasma genitalium was once considered the organism with the smallest amount of DNA. That particular title was lost in 2002 but the organism has since taken centre stage in a story which could make it one of the most famous microbes in history!

If it works, Venter will have created a new, artificial species already dubbed Mycoplasma laboratorium. Proof if proof were needed that all scentists lack the sense of humour gene!

When the project was first announced in 2007, Venter said it 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".

2010 will be make or break for the project. They've already shown that they can insert a chromosome from one Mycoplasma species into another, in effect changing its species, using a technique known as "genome transplantation". Venter is now confident, despite some early setbacks, that the same process will work for the man-made chromosome.

Once inside the bacterium, the chromosome must show an ability to replicate itself and metabolise on the molecular machinery of its host cell. At the same time, it must dodge enzymes from the host cell trying to destroy the "foreign" DNA.

Understandably, the work raises some ethical dilemmas. Venter however has carried out an "ethical review" before completing the work and declares that "we feel that this is good science".

Obviously pressing the positives rather than the negative, Venter speculates that artificial organisms could be used to mop up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thus slowing climate change and even pruduce biofuels to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The beauty and the beast of this science is that it is an 'enabling technology', so as well as the positives, there is the possibility of the technology being used for more dubious purposes such as bio-weapons.

Speaking to the Guardian, Venter points out, "we are not afraid to take on things that are important just because they stimulate thinking.""We are dealing in big ideas. We are trying to create a new value system for life. When dealing at this scale, you can't expect everybody to be happy."


  © Communicate Science; Blogger template 'Isolation' by 2012

Back to TOP