May 22, 2010

Synthetic cell

Another achievement in synthetic biology - researchers say they created a synthetic cell. According to the press release from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), where the cell was constructed, the bacterial DNA of one bacterium (M. mycoides) was assembled from small fragments and grown in yeast cells. Then an error correction method that allowed to make sure that this synthetic DNA was viable has been developed. Then the synthetic bacterial DNA of M. mycoides was transplanted into another bacterium, Mycoplasma capricolum, where it started producing proteins. The initial genome was either destroyed or lost during replication and after two days there were viable M. mycoides cells rather than M. capricolum.

There are many issues here (including the White House finally getting interested in all this), but I'd like point a couple of things:

  • Other scientists quoted in newspapers downplay the achievement by saying that it's not a big deal or that it's not a creation of new life anyway. Why? It can be a journalistic way of presenting "diverse" viewpoints, a clash of scientific paradigms, jealousy, or something else.
  • In previous reports about the synthesis of life forms (e.g., in February 2008) the companies that provided DNA cassettes were usually omitted. Now the provider Blue Heron in also in the news. It can be nothing. Or something related to ownership, commercial interests, patenting, etc.
  • The project was funded by Synthetic Genomics, which has a contract from Exxon to generate biofules from algae. So while Dr. Venter tries to present the achievement of JCVI as an advance that raises philosophical, epistemological and other questions (and it does), the goal of all this is profit. And it means that if we want the ultimate questions of life, the universe and everything to be sufficiently addressed, it must be done by somebody else. Who?