Now, this is exciting, in that it represents an incredible technical tour de force. This is a project that Venter has been working on for several years now, and his group has overcome some formidable technical hurdles. He has taken raw, non-living ingredients, and made an entire genome out of them. This is easy to do for a single gene, or for a few thousand bases of DNA. Venter’s group has made DNA molecules of 1,077,947 bases, encoding about a thousand genes. His group has also figured out how to move this artificial genome into a cell, and have it displace the genome that was already there. To use Venter’s analogy, he has wiped the cell’s operating system and re-booted it with a new operating system.
However, this is also kind of boring. Venter’s group solved each of these technical problems, in isolation, over the last few years (see here for making a synthetic genome (which was not transplanted) and the reboot of a cell (with “natural,” not synthetic DNA)). Today’s news is simply that they have managed to do these things together. Most people who keep tabs on this kind of expected it to happen sooner, almost a year ago, and Venter himself has expressed some surprise that it’s taken so long.
This is big news, since it does open up a couple of cans of worms. There will be a bunch of hand-wringing, especially among those who have not been paying attention. (Half an hour after hearing the news, I heard the first wild conjectures about terrorists making killer superbugs. The commentator was apparently unaware of the tons—literally, thousands of kilograms—of genetically modified anthrax that the Soviet Union made, and thought that some schlub in a cave can do what Venter did.) Those who have been paying attention, including Venter, have been chewing on the ethical implications of this work for over a decade. The real big thing will be down the road. This is one step in the business plan of Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, which is to use purpose-built microorganisms to do all manner of useful things. They envision using these custom organisms to do everything from making hydrocarbons to, well, cleaning up oil spills.
And finally, it’s small news. This is a small step in Synthetic Genomics’ plan, and the organism that they’ve made is about as simple as possible. Its genes are the barest essentials. The cells are tiny, simple, and require a lot of help to grow. The only genetic material that these cells carry that is not about mere survival is a handful of genetic “watermarks,” regions of DNA that don’t encode anything, but have a distinctive sequence—a maker’s mark.
So, be excited, but try to be calmer than the headlines. More later.