Artificial Life on the Horizon

Admit it: you wouldn’t mind winning a Nobel Prize. Well here’s a science project for you: reverse global warming, solve the world’s energy crisis, and pave the way for breakthrough antibiotics and vaccines… all in one fell swoop. The modest task before you? Create the world’s first synthetic life form, and make it dance.

creation-of-adamNow for the bad news. You’ve got competition. Some of the best scientists across the globe are chasing the holy grail of biology, and they’re making some serious headway. The prospect of man-made life is becoming less a question of if, and more a question of when. But can gene engineering really save the world? Can it destroy it?

Welcome to the wonderful world of synthetic genomics.

The Idea

The first step to cooking up your own life form is to understand the language it’s written in: DNA. The genetic revolution of the past few decades has allowed scientists to sequence whole genomes, from fruit flies and rats to our very own species. Once the genomes are mapped, the task becomes making a synthetic copy, A by T by C by G. DNA gets stitched together using a combination of different lab techniques, with the final goal of building a whole genome. Different research teams have taken different approaches, and the race is on to see who succeeds first.

Craig Venter with a scarf on
Craig Venter with a sweet scarf

Craig Venter is something of an overachiever. Not content with his critical role in the Human Genome Project, he’s now running the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) and the startup Synthetic Genomics. Both groups are at the forefront of a whole host of genetic engineering projects, not least of which is the race towards synthetic life. Their starting point is mycoplasma genitalium, a parasitic bacterium that boasts one of nature’s smallest genomes: perfect for hacking.

In January 2008, JCVI announced that they had successfully synthesized the 580,000 base-pair genome of the bacterium. This was a huge milestone towards man-made life, but they haven’t crossed the finish line yet. The final step is to boot up the software: insert the genome into a cell and bring it to life. This unrealized goal already has the name mycoplasma laboratorium, and would replicate normally within the environment of a surrogate cell.

George Church, a molecular geneticist at Harvard Medical School, is taking a different approach. His focus is E. coli, which has a simpler genome that can arguably be easier (and faster) to synthesize. Nothing like some healthy competition between a few of the world’s best geneticists.

Building Something New

Venter and co. are working to hone down the bacterium’s genome to its bare bones, the smallest amount of DNA that can sustain life (called the Minimal Genome Project). Once they have the skeleton of a life form, they can hypothetically fill it in with genes to customize its behavior. This opens the door for turning bacteria into little factories for useful products: biofuels, medicine, you name it.

The more Legos in your box, the cooler stuff you can build. Making a genome is no different: the more genes at your disposal, the more design options will be available. Currently, about 20 million different genes have been discovered throughout the natural world. Venter and others are scouring the planet for life forms with unique properties – say, surviving in a nuclear reactor – whose genes can be added to the database.

biofuelSynthetic Genomics is also working on genetically modifying algae to serve as a source of biofuel, which they hope will replace the petroleum industry as mankind’s primary energy source within a decade. Feeding on just sunlight and carbon dioxide, the algae could be grown in your very own backyard. Using CO2 instead of sugar as a source of carbon would not only solve the food-for-fuel problem, it could help reduce greenhouse gases currently cooking the planet. A few other startups, George Church’s LS9 and Amyris Biotech, are racing to develop biofuels before Synthetic Genomics; LS9 looks to be leading the pack. Curiously, BP has teamed up with Venter to produce the biofuels he hopes will make the petrol giant obsolete. That is, if Dick Cheney doesn’t kill him with a shotgun first.

So how far along is all of this? It’s hard to say. Venter occasionally makes cryptic remarks about the JVCI pipeline, leaving the rest of us to speculate. In February 08, he claimed an algae-based fuel product could be ready by August of this year (no word as of yet). Last year Venter also gave the vague promise that Synthetic Genomics would have “multiple things on the market within five years.” The synthetic life project is going to take longer. Dr. David Deamer at UCSC recently claimed it could be done within five to ten years, and most estimates fall within that relatively wide span of time.

Still, progress is being made all the time. George Church created an artificial ribosome earlier this year, a key component to expressing genes into proteins. A newly developed metallofullerine could provide the template for developing amino acids and RNA. With so many scientists chasing the same goal across the planet, more eureka moments are sure to come. The only question remaining is how long it will take for these advances to arrive. Realistically, it could be many years before synthetic genomics can reach its potential. But if there’s a field known for surprises, genetics takes the cake.

The End Is Nigh

There’s no shortage of chatter about the possible implications of synthetic life. Proponents hail it as a second genesis, an outstanding scientific achievement that could solve the ever-looming dangers of global warming, peak oil, and pandemic disease. To be sure, genetic engineering has a wide scope of applications. Venter, in characteristically dramatic form, claims its limits are those of our imagination.

But keeping such powerful technology in well-meaning hands is no guarantee.  Tinkering with the code of life could lead to some devastating weapons: bacteria and viruses custom built to kill. Regulating the frontier of biotechnology is nearly impossible, and critics warn that synthetic life could revolutionize DIY bioterrorism.

As with any revolutionary technology, synthetic life is both frightening and hopeful in the potential it suggests. That might sound cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason: the world is changing rapidly, and the dizzying pace of innovation should both excite us and give us pause. The ways in which we deploy our new tools will shape the outcome of these times, as well as those to come. Rest assured: life from a laboratory will rock the world in one way or another.

So stay tuned.

Drew Halley
Drew Halley
Drew Halley is a graduate student researcher in Anthropology and is part of the Social Science Matrix at UC Berkeley. He is a PhD candidate in biological anthropology at UC Berkeley studying the evolution of primate brain development. His undergraduate research looked at the genetics of neurotransmission, human sexuality, and flotation tank sensory deprivation at Penn State University. He also enjoys brewing beer, photography, public science education, and dungeness crab. Drew was recommended for the Science Envoy program by UC Berkeley anthropologist/neuroscientist Terrence Deacon.
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