Saturday, May 22, 2010

OMG! Wait…OMV… well maybe not…just yet...

Like many this week, I was stunned with the news that Craig Venter had done the impossible. With headlines proclaiming Venture created the first synthetic life or first synthetic cell, how could I not be excited. Obviously, as word buzzed through my research complex people were saying OMG. It was then that I realized that maybe Venter had achieved “oh my Venter status”, OMV.

Within a few hours of hearing the news, my excitement over this event felt hollow. It was almost like my first Christmas after finding out that Santa was not real. There was something that was missing. Unfortunately, once again the media ruined this moment for me. I had just elevated Venter to OMV status, when I began to look beyond the headlines to find out about the god-like accomplishment he achieved. I soon realized that this was just another logical step in science combined with a neat trick, albeit on a Venter scale.

Maybe it is because I am a virologist but I am not shocked at creating a replicating entity from synthetic DNA. In true Venter Institute fashion they increased the scale by over 1000x, but they were not the first. Eckard Wimmer at SUNY Stony Brook (w00t) was the first to create a “synthetic” virus, polio, back in 2002. They even made it all in cell free systems. Obviously reconstituting a virus that can self assemble and replacing the genome in a cell are two different things. It would have been really cool if they could have assembled a cell in vitro around their synthetic genome but that is beyond our capabilities right now. I expect this may be the direction they will be going though. There will be more OMV days to come.

Genomic replacement is nothing new. Dolly the world’s first cloned animal in 1996 was produced from nuclear replacement. Actually, genomic replacement and nuclear replacement are governed by similar rules. The most important is that the new genetic material has to interact with the cellular machinery. DNA by itself is inert; it is like the tape inside a cassette. You need the tape player, speakers etc to actually use the information that is embedded within it. The Venter group had to chose two closely related organisms for the swap. Otherwise the DNA would stay inert, since it could not fully tap into the cell’s machinery. It will take a greater understanding of cell-DNA interactions to begin to plan on accomplishing this trick with a truly synthetic genome representing the world’s first true intelligently designed species.

This accomplishment is not synthetic life, it is photocopied life. DNA is a chemical polymer, it is not alive, whether it is made in a cell or in a test tube it is identical. The Venter group copied the genome (this is still a big accomplishment) from one organism and put it in another. They did not engineer a new organism, they did not make a new species, what they did was equivalent to installing Linux on computer that was running Windows 7. It is far different from coming up with the new operating system that some headlines proclaimed he did.

After going over why my excitement has been tempered, you may be wondering why I am giving this attention, or even why was this published in Science? It is because of the scale at which it was done. While many well funded labs today still weigh the cost and benefits of synthesizing DNA constructs instead of cloning them through traditional means, Venter through money out the window and showed what is possible. He has once again dared the scientific establishment to dream big. In the age of tight funding where taking the next incremental step is more desirable than shooting for the stars, Venter thumbed his nose at the establishment and grant reviewers. More importantly Venter has now established the platform, protocols, techniques, and troubleshooting, so that others can now propose to do similar things and hope to get funding instead of a big “lolz that’s impossible.” He has once again pushed the envelope of current technology and dared the rest of the world to come with him.

Now that Venter has shown this is possible, what would be the first thing you would like to see happen with this technology, comments encouraged.

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