Beyond the Genome: The Challenge of Synthetic Biology
October 25, 2007
Dr Craig Venter, a leading US scientist in synthetic biology, talked on a panel yesterday at the LSE. As someone who dominates this area of scientific practice and a controversial figure I have inadvertently followed in my research, I jumped at the chance to hear him speak. Also on the panel who gave further insights into ethical, philosophical and practical issues were, Prof. Sarah Franklin (LSE), Prof. Peter Lipton, Dr Chris Mason (UCL) and Prof George Gaskell (LSE).
Venter who founded the J. Craig Venter Institute, has hit the headlines recently with his proposal to design a completely new life-form. Through his institute he famously pushed the mapping of the human genome, in fact he is amongst only two people who have had their genome sequenced, the other being James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA structure). Building on this research he now has bigger sights. He interestingly wants to gain comet samples to sequence bacteria found on the rock, to illustrate the transpermia taking place across the solar system.
The Institute researches areas including Human Genomic Medicine, Environmental Genomics, Synthetic Biology and Biological Energy. Actual outcomes include sequencing bacteria and microbes in the Sargasso Sea to find tens of thousands of new microbal species and tens of millions of new genes. Also constructing whole new artificial chromosomes. These can in the future create new microbes and biofuels that through microbal metabolism eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2) output into the environment and capture back current CO2 in the atmosphere .
Venter talked about the process of creating new synthetic chromosomes to establish the needs and importance of each gene. He used the metaphor of electronics to explain the processes behind the production methods. “Using new methods the group improved the speed and accuracy of genomic synthesis by assembling the 5,386 base pair bacteriophage φX174 (phi X)”. Here the software ‘bacteriophage’ is used like software to create and synthesis the hardware, to build the phi X 174 genome.
I am fascinated by synthetic biology and it’s potential to radically transform our technological production methods and our command on living systems. To quote from the institutes website:
“Fast becoming one of the hottest new fields of biology, synthetic biology has the potential to impact all areas of society. One of the tenets of chemistry states that to prove true understanding of a structure one must be able to synthesize it. The team at the Venter Institute is concentrating on new methodologies to synthesize large segments of DNA to eventually enable the construction of whole artificial chromosomes. This is the next logical step in genome biology as it is the only way to better understand the minimal component of cellular life and understand the evolution of life. Through new understandings of gene and genome function researchers could one day more efficiently develop pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and textiles.”
More to come on Venter’s talk and misuse and ethical implications.
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