The Quantum Tunnel
Science and the World around Us
Volume 1, Number 2, May, 8 2011
David S. Latchman
The recent announcement of the creation of a syn-thetic life-form by scientists at the J. Craig VenterInstitute is likely to conjure images straight out of a Hollywood B-movie. A few chemicals are mixedinto a beaker, the concoction is zapped with elec-tricity and a few hours later, a cascade of reactionstake place and a new life-form crawls out of solutionto wreck havoc on an unsuspecting world. (Throwin mad-scientist laughing manically while shouting,“It’s alive!”)Asexciting(orhorrifying)asthissounds,thissce-nario is far removed from what the ﬁeld of synthetic biology represents. Scientists are not attempting tocreate life out of inanimate matter (at least, not yet) but rather modify existing organisms, like geneticengineers already do today. But instead of target-ing and replacing one gene, large chunks of genesor entire genomes are changed. The difference be-tween this and genetic engineering is that synthetic biologists are constructing the instruction sets for lifefrom scratch and adding it to something that is al-ready alive. The possibilities of this are endless asthe changes in an organism’s DNA can force themto do things typically not found in nature, such as,the production of fuels and chemicals from carbondioxide in the air to the manufacture of medicines.Organisms can even be designed to seek and destroymalignant cells and hopefully cure diseases.
The Minimal Genome Project andCreating Synthetic Organisms
But what is remarkable about this recent achieve-ment isn’t the genetic sequencing or the chemicalsynthesis of a bacterial cell that took place but howfar the ﬁeld has come in a relatively short space of time. The techniques to sequence DNA was ﬁrstdeveloped in the late 1970’s by Frederick Sanger tomap the genome of a bacterium phi-X174, the ﬁrstorganism to be sequenced. This technique that waspainstakingly done entirely by hand and played animportant part in the Human Genome Project. To-day, computers are used to sequence data and theability to digitize genomic information has increased by more than eight orders of magnitude in the past25 years; a feat only surpassed by the semiconductorindustry.The Venter Lab’s interest in synthesizing largeDNA molecules and chromosomes grew out of theirefforts over the past 15 years from the the MinimalGenome Project. This project sought to discover anddeﬁne the minimal set of instructions or genes that isneeded for an organism to survive. In any organismthere are large sets of genes that are non-coding; theydo not encode proteins needed for life. Theoretically,these can be eliminated from an organism with nodetrimentaleffect. Thisworkwasstartedwiththese-quencing of the Mycoplasma genitalium bacterium,an organism with the smallest complement of genesand the organism the group chose to synthesize.The group then developed strategies to not onlyproduce large DNA sequences from yeast cells butto also assemble them in the correct order. Oncefully assembled, the genome can be inserted into analready existing cell that has had its genetic mate-