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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Science takes another step down a long road


"This is both a baby step and a giant step," said scientist and venture capitalist Craig Venter as he revealed that his team had created the first "synthetic cell." "It's a giant step because, until this was done, it was only hypothetical that it could work. It's a baby step in terms of all the distance we have to go before you can buy fuel made from carbon dioxide or have new medicines or new sources of food."

It's a lot more of a baby step than a giant step, because the feat of synthesizing the rather simple, single chromosome of a bacteria was not new; his own team had done it. Neither was transplanting the chromosome of one kind of bacteria into a different kind of bacteria (after removing the latter cell's original chromosome), and persuading the resulting organism to reproduce. His team had already done that too, as had many other people.

Now they have done both things together, which is quite impressive, but not exactly groundbreaking. If Venter is "playing God," as the usual suspects immediately accused him of doing, it is a fairly minor god from a dead religion — Vucub Punahu, perhaps, or Bragi. But he does understand the art of self-promotion.

Well, fair enough: If you're in business, you have to promote yourself. When big players like ExxonMobil, the U.S. Department of Energy and major pharmaceutical companies have poured nontrivial amounts of money into your research, you have to show impressive results on a regular basis. And he really is doing very good work. Just not world-shaking — yet.

One small but significant detail tells us where he really is in his research, relative to his declared goals of making fuel from carbon dioxide and creating new medicines and new sources of food. It is the fact that he synthesized not a completely new chromosome, capable of doing wonderful new things, but an exact copy of the chromosome of an existing bacteria, Mycoplasma mycoides. (It causes mastitis in goats.)

This humble circular chromosome contains 1,080,000 "letters" of the four-letter genetic alphabet, which must be read in exactly the right sequence in order to create a functioning example of the bacteria in question. Venter's scientists got only one "letter" wrong, and when they transplanted the chromosome into the Mycoplasma capricolum cell that had been prepared to receive it, the damn thing wouldn't live and reproduce.

After three months of trying, they found the error and corrected it. They transplanted the accurate version of the M. mycoides chromosome into the empty M. capricolum cell, and lo! It lived. Not only that, but it reproduced about a billion times, and all the daughter cells were M. mycoides. You could give a goat mastitis with them, if you wanted.

So what did Venter accomplish, exactly? He successfully copied an entire existing chromosome and transplanted it into another cell. That is a very, very long way from designing your own chromosomes, in order to create organisms that eat pollution, or make huge quantities of some needed vaccine, or take in carbon dioxide and put out an octane fuel. One wrong letter in a million, and the thing won't live.

That is not to say that he can never get there. He, or somebody else, probably will get there in the next five or 10 years. But they won't get there very fast if they are trying to do radically new things with the genetic makeup of bacteria. And for less than radical changes, as Dr. Gos Micklem of Cambridge University said, "there is already a wealth of simple, cheap, powerful and mature techniques for genetically engineering a range of organisms."

This new technology's time will definitely come. Some of the things it may be able to do, like provide us with a cost-effective, carbon-neutral source of fuel for our vehicles, are so desirable and so hard to achieve by any other means that the resources will be made available for this research no matter how much it costs. If there's any doubt about that now, there will certainly be none once climate change really starts to bite

As for "playing God" or "creating life," get over it. This is just one or two steps more down a road that we have been traveling for a long time already.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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