A couple of weeks ago, scientists from the J. Craig Venters Institute (JCVI) announced that they had created the first organism with a synthetic genome. President of the institute Craig Venters sees this as the first major step towards creating synthetic organisms that will produce anything from cheap medicines to advanced biofuels.
This synthetic organism, a bacterium, contained a complete genome that had been created by combining thousands and thousands of Mycoplasma mycoides gene base sequences in several stages. After combining all these base sequences in a process that used yeast, the JCVI team placed the completed genome in a M. capricolum cell, a close relative of M. mycoides.
After several setbacks, the team was finally able to create a viable M. capricolum bacteria culture that expressed the synthetic genome and replicated unhindered. Compared to more ‘traditional’ genetic manipulation which involves replacing only parts of the entire genome, this signifies the first time an entire genome that was built piece by piece has replaced an organism’s original genome and survived.
The implications of this breakthrough have attracted the attention of many different groups, from politicians to businesspeople.
First off, Exxon Mobil has been interested in this technology prior to this announcement and actually partnered with Synthetic Genomics, a company that Craig Venters also acts as Chairman, to produce a strain of algae for biofuel production. This partnership has the potential for Exxon Mobil to invest $600 million into Synthetic Genomics and this area of research.
By creating a life form that contains only the DNA specifically desired, Venters and his fellow scientists hope to use the same techniques to eventually create a strain of algae that will express specific desirable traits. That way, the algae they create could possibly have a high oil content and be resistant to pests and environmental extremes as well.
However, there are those that are wary of what this new breakthrough may herald. Nightmare scenarios of terrorists using this technology for bioweapons and threats of “genetic extinction” are some of the fears that have been voiced.
Fears like those ultimately prompted the United States House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee to schedule a hearing this past week to discuss the implications of synthetic biology research.
The committee heard testimonies from five different experts in the field including Craig Venters. Other witnesses ranged from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the US National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases to Dr. Jay Keasling who directs the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center at the University of California Berkley.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Congress and the researchers were in agreement that right now, the technology didn’t pose any immediate danger to our environment or security. The research is in such early stages that the researchers believe that any undue action by the government to regulate the industry could end up stifling any beneficial advancement.
Plus, as one testifying researcher pointed out with regards to worries about using this technology to create a superbug, “nature itself is already an expert at creating microbes that can cause great harm to humans” and this technology could offer a way to create life saving cures for many diseases.
So does this mean that new, made-to-order pets could be right around the corner? Not at all. Research to create this single-celled organism took years to do and future research looks to be staying in the single-cell arena for a while. So while you may not be able to purchase your genetically ideal furry friend anytime soon, the prospect of creating a genetically ideal strain of algae for biofuel production is coming closer to reality.
Article by Jonathan Williams appearing courtesy Celsias.