Dec 28, 2007 11:49 PM
by Cass Silva
Received this article from another site. It may interest some.
http://www.washingt onpost.com/ wp-
dyn/content/ article/2007/ 12/16/AR20071216 01900.html
Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007; A01
It has been 50 years since scientists first created
DNA in a test
tube, stitching ordinary chemical ingredients together
life's most extraordinary molecule. Until recently,
the most sophisticated laboratories could make only
of DNA -- an extra gene or two to be inserted into
corn plants, for
example, to help the plants ward off insects or
Now researchers are poised to cross a dramatic
barrier: the creation
of life forms driven by completely artificial DNA.
Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's
handcrafted chromosome -- a large looping strand of
DNA made from
scratch in a laboratory, containing all the
instructions a microbe
needs to live and reproduce.
In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a
cell, where it
is expected to "boot itself up," like software
downloaded from the
Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its
bidding. And while
the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized
version of a natural
one, others that code for life forms that have never
are already under construction.
The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA,
philosophers agree, will be a watershed event,
blurring the line
between biological and artificial -- and forcing a
what it means for a thing to be alive.
"This raises a range of big questions about what
nature is and what
it could be," said Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist at
of California at Berkeley who studies science's
society. "Evolutionary processes are no longer seen as
inviolable. People in labs are figuring them out so
they can improve
upon them for different purposes."
That unprecedented degree of control over creation
raises more than
philosophical questions, however. What kinds of
scientists, terrorists and other creative individuals
make? How will
these self-replicating entities be contained? And who
might end up
owning the patent rights to the basic tools for
Some experts are worried that a few maverick companies
gaining monopoly control over the core "operating
artificial life and are poised to become the
Microsofts of synthetic
biology. That could stifle competition, they say, and
power in a few people's hands.
"We're heading into an era where people will be
writing DNA programs
like the early days of computer programming, but who
will own these
programs?" asked Drew Endy, a scientist at the
Institute of Technology.
At the core of synthetic biology's new ascendance are
synthesizers that can produce very long strands of
from basic chemical building blocks: sugars,
compounds and phosphates.
Today a scientist can write a long genetic program on
just as a maestro might compose a musical score, then
synthesizer to convert that digital code into actual
Experiments with "natural" DNA indicate that when a
gets plopped into a cell, it will be able to direct
of the cell's old DNA and become its new "brain" --
telling the cell
to start making a valuable chemical, for example, or a
medicine or a
toxin, or a bio-based gasoline substitute.
Unlike conventional biotechnology, in which scientists
genetic changes in cells to make them serve industrial
synthetic biology involves the large-scale rewriting
codes to create metabolic machines with singular
"I see a cell as a chassis and power supply for the
systems we are putting together," said Tom Knight of
MIT, who likes
to compare the state of cell biology today to that of
engineering in 1864. That is when the United States
began to adopt
standardized thread sizes for nuts and bolts, an
allowed the construction of complex devices from
If biology is to morph into an engineering discipline,
it is going
to need similarly standardized parts, Knight said. So
colleagues have started a collection of hundreds of
genetic components they call BioBricks, which students
are already popping into cells like Lego pieces.
So far, synthetic biology is still semi-synthetic,
cell organisms such as bacteria and yeast that have a
natural and synthetic DNA. The cells can reproduce, a
of life. But in many cases that urge has been
suppressed, along with other "distracting" biological
"Most cells go about life like we do, with the
intention to make
more of themselves after eating," said John Pierce, a
at DuPont in Wilmington, Del., a leader in the field.
"But what we
want them to do is make stuff we want."
J. Craig Venter, chief executive of Synthetic Genomics
knows what he wants his cells to make: ethanol,
hydrogen and other
exotic fuels for vehicles, to fill a market that has
to be worth $1 trillion.
In a big step toward that goal, Venter has now built
the first fully
artificial chromosome, a strand of DNA many times
anything made by others and laden with all the genetic
microbe needs to get by.
Details of the process are under wraps until the work
probably early next year. But Venter has already shown
that he can
insert a "natural" chromosome into a cell and bring it
to life. If a
synthetic chromosome works the same way, as expected,
living cells with fully artificial genomes could be
dishes by the end of 2008.
The plan is to mass-produce a plain genetic platform
able to direct
the basic functions of life, then attach
custom-designed DNA modules
that can compel cells to make synthetic fuels or other
It will be a challenge to cultivate fuel-spewing
acknowledged. Among other problems, he said, is that
unless the fuel
is constantly removed, "the bugs will basically pickle
But the hurdles are not insurmountable. LS9 Inc., a
company in San
Carlos, Calif., is already using E. coli bacteria that
reprogrammed with synthetic DNA to produce a fuel
alternative from a
diet of corn syrup and sugar cane. So efficient are
synthetic metabolisms that LS9 predicts it will be
able to sell the
fuel for just $1.25 a gallon.
At a DuPont plant in Tennessee, other semi-synthetic
living on cornstarch and making the chemical 1,3
PDO. Millions of pounds of the stuff are being spun
and woven into
high-tech fabrics (DuPont's chief executive wears a
made of it), putting the bug-begotten chemical on
track to become
the first $1 billion biotech product that is not a
Engineers at DuPont studied blueprints of E. coli's
used synthetic DNA to help the bacteria make PDO far
efficiently than could have been done with ordinary
"If you want to sell it at a dollar a gallon . . . you
bit of efficiency you can muster," said DuPont's
Pierce. "So we're
running these bugs to their limits."
Yet another application is in medicine, where
synthetic DNA is
allowing bacteria and yeast to produce the malaria
far more efficiently than it is made in plants, its
Bugs such as these will seem quaint, scientists say,
synthetic organisms are brought on line to work 24/7
on a range of
tasks, from industrial production to chemical
cleanups. But the
prospect of a flourishing synbio economy has many
wondering who will
own the valuable rights to that life.
In the past year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
flooded with aggressive synthetic-biology claims. Some
applications, in particular, "are breathtaking in
their scope," said
Knight. And with Venter's company openly hoping to
operating system for biologically- based software,"
some fear it is
seeking synthetic hegemony.
"We've asked our patent lawyers to be reasonable and
not to be
overreaching, " Venter said. But competitors such as
said, "have just blanketed the field with patent
Safety concerns also loom large. Already a few
scientists have made
viruses from scratch. The pending ability to make
bacteria -- which,
unlike viruses, can live and reproduce in the
environment outside of
a living body -- raises new concerns about
and the potential for mischief.
"Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely
tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and
organisms that could pose grave threats to people and
concluded a recent report by the Ottawa-based ETC
Group, one of
dozens of advocacy groups that want a ban on releasing
organisms pending wider societal debate and
"The danger is not just bio-terror but bio-error," the
Many scientists say the threat has been overblown.
Venter notes that
his synthetic genomes are spiked with special genes
that make the
microbes dependent on a rare nutrient not available in
Pierce, of DuPont, says the company's bugs are too
"They are designed to grow in a cosseted environment
with very high
food levels," Pierce said. "You throw this guy out on
the ground, he
just can't compete. He's toast."
"We've heard that before," said Jim Thomas, ETC
manager, noting that genes engineered into crops have
their way into other plants despite assurances to the
fact is, you can build viruses, and soon bacteria,
instructions on the Internet," Thomas said. "Where's
In fact, government controls on trade in dangerous
microbes do not
apply to the bits of DNA that can be used to create
them. And while
some industry groups have talked about policing the
themselves, the technology is quickly becoming so
say, that it will not be long before "bio hackers"
garages will be downloading genetic programs and
making them into
novel life forms.
"The cat is out of the bag," said Jay Keasling, chief
biology at the University of California at Berkeley.
Andrew Light, an environmental ethicist at the
Washington in Seattle, said synthetic biology poses a
because of its double-edged ability to both wreak
and perhaps wean civilization from dirty 20th-century
and petroleum-based fuels.
"For the environmental community, I think this is
going to be a
really hard choice," Light said.
Depending on how people adjust to the idea of man-made
life -- and
on how useful the first products prove to be -- the
field could go
either way, Light said.
"It could be that synthetic biology is going to be
so overwhelming and ubiquitous that no one notices it
anymore. Or it
could be like abortion -- the kind of deep
disagreement that will
not go away."
The question, if the abortion model holds, is which
side of the
synthetic biology debate will get to call itself
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