In the latest in Frankenstein-ian science, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland have reported the creation of the world’s first cell containing a synthetic genome. Already the discovery is being marketed as the creation of “synthetic life” in some popular media.
On the heels of such spectacular headlines come the fears of the wary, the paranoid, and the misled. Already on Facebook, there is a Stop Synthetic Life group.
I wasn’t able to find the paper yet – today’s announcement seems to be a pre-paper announcement, correct me if I’m wrong – but looking through various sources here’s what I’ve found:
The genome was created, yes, in the sense that the bits of DNA was made in a test tube rather than an organism. But it wasn’t a novel genome by any means. It was a replica of an existing genome from an existing strain of Mycoplasma with a few non essential genes removed and a few marker genes added (so the genome could be distinguished from the “natural” version). Science already creates mice with jellyfish genes and plants that resist pesticides, among many other examples… A few marker genes is hardly novel.
This edited genome was then sequenced into chemical fragments, stitched together with some clever biochemistry, and inserted into an “empty” Mycoplasma recipient. The recipient was able to use this artificial genome and propagate naturally, thus producing “synthetic cells”.
Pretty cool, yes. Certainly an interesting achievement. But synthetic life? Hardly. And at a cost of $30-40 million USD, I can’t help but think that there would have been better uses for this money.