Life takes on new meanings
Scientist Craig Venter and his team have designed three different genomes, hoping one of them will go on to become the world’s first truly synthetic life form. The geneticist is hoping the first species will arrive soon, reports Kalyan Ray, from the sidelines of the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin.
Vaccines may come by emails one day. Sounds like science fiction? Geneticist J Craig Venter says it is very much within the realm of reality and can be achieved within years. With support from the US government and pharmaceutical company Novartis, Venter and his team have set their eyes on ushering in a new era in biology.
If the maverick scientist succeeds, the world will not have to wait for years, or decades in some cases, for a vaccine after a fresh outbreak. Within days of mapping the genetic sequence of the causative agent, vaccine companies can start manufacturing as the sequences will come to them by email.
As the companies have production-ready vaccine seeds available with them, all they have to do after receiving the sequence is to synthesise the genetic material in the laboratory; replace the seed vaccine’s genetic material with the synthesised one and start production. A matter of few hours may be.
Depends on DNA
This is actually incredibly complicated science, which Venter believes will come by integrating biology with information sciences. It is all about redefining life in the digital era.
This will happen after the creation of synthetic life, which he hopes to fabricate in the laboratory shortly. “Life is a DNA software system. A cell has no soul and brain. It functions on DNA, which commands proteins to follow the code,” he said, delivering a public lecture last week at the Trinity College, Dublin on the sidelines of the European Open Science Forum 2012. The lecture has a historical perspective.
On a cold winter night in February 1943, Nobel laureate and Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, who settled in Dublin after having problems with Hitler’s regime in pre-World War Germany, gave a public lecture titled ‘What is Life’ at the Trinity College. That was first of the three public lectures by Schrodinger on life, which was later compiled as a book.
That book inspired generations of scientists including DNA discoverer James Watson and Francis Crick as well as Venter to probe deep into life’s mysteries. In the 1940s, Schrodinger predicted the presence of an ‘äperiodic crystal’ within the body to code for life.In fact, within weeks of publishing their paper in Nature in 1953, Watson and Crick wrote a letter to Schrodinger acknowledging how his book had inspired them. “I read it five times. Each time it meant something new,” Venter said.
Scientists are asking the same question in the 21st century. Principal among them is Venter, the scientist who has drastically changed the pace and direction of genetics in the last decade by way of his novel method of gene sequencing and his well-publicised race to map the human genome. He did this in competition with the government backed initiative at the National Institute of Health in the USA. A former NIH scientist himself, Venter founded the Institute of Genomic Research and later built the biotech company Celera Genomics.
Stirred by his belief that microbes are central to answering the world’s most pressing problems, Venter returned to his long held goal to engineer a microorganism from scratch.
In attempting to create synthetic life, Venter’s team defined the minimal quotient for life in a microbe and in 2010 re-booted a cell with a synthetically created genome.
A computer generated and laboratory-made genome of a bacterium called Mycoplasma mycoides was incorporated into a cell to create the first bacterial cell controlled by a synthetic genome.
The genome was created in the laboratory from fundamental chemical building blocks. Modelled on a known micro organism, the synthetic DNA was inserted in a hollow cell whose internal genetic material was scooped out. The artificial DNA then takes over as the cell’s new master. “You change DNA to change the species,” he said.
The next step is to determine the minimum number of genes required to sustain a free-living organism. The job is particularly difficult as the functions of many genes and their inter-play in a cell still remains unknown. But Venter and his team have designed three different minimum genomes hoping one of them will live to become the world’s first truly synthetic life. If he succeeds, it is bound to redefine the essence of what life is in its most basic molecular form.
“The first species with web address written all over its genome will arrive soon. I am hoping it will happen this year,” he said. While the 2010 paper was a proof of concept for Venter, the new challenges for him and his team is to design a new minimal life form in the computer, synthesise it and boot up the synthetic system to life.
“A major focus of Venter’s current work is the creation of synthetic genomes for the construction of modified organisms on a large scale. This work is contentious, supremely ambitious and trademark Venter,” remarked Brendan Loftus, a professor at Conway Institute at University College, Dublin.
Asked about the application potential of these synthetic micro organisms, the scientist said microbes would become the new source of food, energy, water and medicine.
“Without new sources, humanity will be in deep trouble. Synthetic biology will be part of the solution,” he said. Once he has a new artificial life form in his hands, he said he will immediately patent it.