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Dr. Craig Venter God in the Making!

GRK Murty

On May 20th, the Science journal made a momentous announcement: Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith, and their colleagues had created a living creature. Venter did play God! For, he, like Viswamitra’s ‘pratisrishti’, by creating an unprecedented creature, extinguished “the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist.” Their synthesizing of the genome of the bacteria, Mycoplasma mycoides, by first synthesizing short stretches of DNA, each of about 1,080 chemical letters in length from four bottles of chemicals and a chemical synthesizer, and then stitching them together in three stages to produce DNA assemblies of first 10,000 and then 1 lakh letters, followed by full bacterial genome of one million chemical letters, and then activating this chemically synthesized genome by transplanting it into a recipient cell of another, of course, related bacteria— Mycoplasma capricolum—in which the restriction enzyme gene that is known to destroy the incoming synthetic genome is inactivated a priori, which, once ‘booted up’ started replicating M mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 cells, is indeed incredible and, no doubt, one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind. Sir Ian Wilmut, Director of Edinburgh University’s regenerative medicine center, said, “In time this new research may make it possible to extend the range of purposes for which we are able to breed

organisms, dramatically and in ways that we cannot yet imagine.” The ongoing dramatic genome sequencing revolution has indeed raised public expectation of new cures for old diseases to a level that is at times alarming. Over it, aided by the ever expanding power of computers, research in biology is all set to evolve into the heady world of systems biology. Venter himself claims to be currently working on the design of new cells which can capture carbon dioxide and fix the carbon into new fuel molecules, and new biologically derived sources of plastic and chemicals. His team is said to be also working toward using their synthetic DNA tools to build synthetic segments of every known flu virus so that they can build new vaccines in less than 24 hours. They are also said to be exploring the scope for designing new synthetic pathways to make antibiotic compounds that are currently too complex to make. With such extensive research under progress in synthetic biology— research into stem cells, cystic fibrosis gene, genes responsible for depression, schizophrenia, and compulsive criminality, etc.—we are sure to witness spectacular developments. All this therefore calls for strengthening of the support systems for promoting ‘multidirectional

translation’, and it is in this context that ‘Translational research’—the process by which the fruits of biological research enter the realm of clinical practice—is assuming greater significance and urgency. This newfound scientific research thus throws open new and profitable avenues of investment for the businesses. ‘Biotechnology’, which encompasses all the areas of molecular and cell biology, has immense potential today for ‘translation’ in fields as diverse as agriculture and medicine. Such translation obviously calls for huge investments both in terms of capital and matching human resources. All along, such research and education have been pursued by government agencies. But any attempt at achieving a purposeful level of such ‘translation’ calls for wide collaboration among various agencies. And Indian corporates have a greater role to play in this endeavor, for the benefits from the promise of modern biology are overwhelming. They cannot be passive to such investment opportunities. At the same time, we cannot afford to be ignorant of the fact that Venter’s new technology “could also be used for negative purposes,” such as creating germs for bioterrorism. This so-called dual technologies therefore need to be pursued ethically and tackled carefully with constant review, perhaps, more at the global-level.