First artificial life ‘within months’?

Reported today in the Telegraph UK:

Scientists could create the first new form of artificial life within months after a landmark breakthrough in which they turned one bacterium into another.

Craig Venter likened the process to ‘changing a Macintosh computer into a PC by inserting a new piece of software’.

In a development that has triggered unease and excitement in equal measure, scientists in the US took the whole genetic makeup – or genome – of a bacterial cell and transplanted it into a closely related species.

This then began to grow and multiply in the lab, turning into the first species in the process. The team that carried out the first “species transplant” says it plans within months to do the same thing with a synthetic genome made from scratch in the laboratory.

If that experiment worked, it would mark the creation of a synthetic lifeform.

The research article being cited is from yesterday in the online version of the journal Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1144622), entitled “Genome Transplantation in Bacteria: Changing One Species to Another “. The abstract:

As a step toward propagation of synthetic genomes, we completely replaced the genome of a bacterial cell with one from another species by transplanting a whole genome as naked DNA. Intact genomic DNA from Mycoplasma mycoides large colony (LC), virtually free of protein, was transplanted into Mycoplasma capricolum cells by polyethylene glycol-mediated transformation. Cells selected for tetracycline resistance, carried by the M. mycoides LC chromosome, contain the complete donor genome and are free of detectable recipient genomic sequences. These cells that result from genome transplantation are phenotypically identical to the M. mycoides LC donor strain as judged by several criteria.

Today’s Science News of the Week article referencing this research article can be found here.

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3 Responses to First artificial life ‘within months’?

  1. I saw a report very similar to this one in New Scientist, and was thinking of posting a comment it to the Rosen list when I found that my subscription had expired. You report it in a very neutral way, but what do you think yourself?

    My feeling is that the optimism about synthetic life is based on a total lack of comprehension of the problems involved, and that we won’t see anything that I would call synthetic life in my lifetime, and probably not in the 21st century, if ever. What we will see are modifications of existing organisms, where the deep philosophical problems have been solved by the starting organisms and where the technology has added nothing towards a solution of them. However, there is nothing new in that: people have been creating new organisms in that sense since the dawn of agriculture. Indeed it was already happening before that: the modern oak tree can be regarded as a new organism invented by squirrels.

  2. Tim Gwinn says:

    Athel,

    In the sense that their research seems to demonstrate the potential to introduce entirely novel DNA into an organism, thereby creating a novel species of organism, I see it as profound and possible.

    Insofar as it leverages an existing organism as the “donor” for such novel DNA makes it an achievement far below what I would consider as “creating life”. In this sense, I tend to agree with you that we probably will not see this kind of creation any time in the near future.

  3. I saw a report very similar to this one in New Scientist, and was thinking of posting a comment it to the Rosen list when I found that my subscription had expired. You report it in a very neutral way, but what do you think yourself?

    My feeling is that the optimism about synthetic life is based on a total lack of comprehension of the problems involved, and that we won’t see anything that I would call synthetic life in my lifetime, and probably not in the 21st century, if ever. What we will see are modifications of existing organisms, where the deep philosophical problems have been solved by the starting organisms and where the technology has added nothing towards a solution of them. However, there is nothing new in that: people have been creating new organisms in that sense since the dawn of agriculture. Indeed it was already happening before that: the modern oak tree can be regarded as a new organism invented by squirrels.