So popular is she, that 3 months after her birth, she already has her own Wikipedia page. Synthia may be the hottest innovation of the 21st Century.Yet, for many of us, we read about it casually on May 21st on our iPads or home-delivered newspapers, next to stories about the latest Giants-A’s series showdown and local murder trials. If you happened to miss the news that day, read on, as you might want to become familiar with this innovation.
“Synthia” is the nickname for a brand new bacterium developed by Craig Venter and his J. Craig Venter Institute. You may recognize Venter’s name – he led a team at TIGR (The Institute for Genomic Research) which in is credited as first to fully decode the genome sequence for a free living organism, Haemophilus influenzae in 1995; in 2001, Venter and his team along with Celera Genomics decoded the first human genome entirely. After leaving TIGR, Venter went on to form the the J. Craig Venter Institute and several related companies, such as Synthetic Genomics. Bottom line: Venter is among the leaders in understanding how to decode the basic building blocks of life and has a significant advantage in combining creative ideas on how to use this information commercially in the future. It’s no wonder several investors and VCs like Steve Jurvetson kept close to him.
The story of Synthia is truly something out of a Robin Cook novel – but in this case, the technology that has been perfected may truly have lasting effect on our lives and the lives of our progeny. It’s no simply science fiction.
Synthia was created by a synthetic genome. The team at Venter’s institute essentially pieced together from DNA fragments a modified version of a natural genome (mycoplasma mycoides - a chromosome with some 1.2 million base pairs) and implanted the hand-made genome into the shell of a bacterium. The new organism essentially came to live and is self-replicating. That means that it essentially takes on a life of its own.
Uses and Abuses
One can only image the possible uses of this new approach to synthesizing life, as Synthia only represents the very beginning in a likely long exercise in creating new life forms.
Other areas that Venter and his team are apparently already exploring, and hoping to use their approaches on are: fuel/energy, vaccination production, pollution control/clean-up,cell production,
Since genomes are the building blocks of heredity and proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of cells, and cells are the components of complex systems (organs, etc) within living organisms, the implication is that a synthetic self-replicating organism can become the basic building block to almost any change in life one can imagine.
Shades of “Singularity”
The question that many have had is whether biologists will soon be playing God with this new-found approach. The new technology ultimately leads the way to new forms of genetically produced bacteria, viruses, plants and animals – and since they would be new to our world there would be no way of predicting how they might affect our global environment, ecosystem or biosphere.
What might occur when eventually the recipe for synthetic life falls into naive or evil hands?
This is the essentially the first time that an artificially-created organism can self-replicate. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the predictions by author Ray Kurzweil who has written numerous books predicting new innovations that will explode from the intersection of biology/biotech/genetics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology around the year 2030 (for more on this read The Singularity is Near by Kurzweil).
Love Her, Hate Her
So, that’s Synthia. The bacterium you will come to love and hate. Either we’ve unleashed a new “Manhattan Project” or we’ve got the beginning of a new Era in science. Or, both.
I’d like to hear your impressions on this important innovation.