Archive for March 29th, 2016

“Minimal cell raises stakes in race to harness synthetic life”. Really??

29 March, 2016

Genomics entrepreneur Craig Venter has created a synthetic cell that contains the smallest genome of any known, independent organism. Functioning with 473 genes, the cell is a milestone in his team’s 20-year quest to reduce life to its bare essentials and, by extension, to design life from scratch.

Venter, who has co-founded a company that seeks to harness synthetic cells for making industrial products, says that the feat heralds the creation of customized cells to make drugs, fuels and other products. But an explosion in powerful ‘gene-editing’ techniques, which enable relatively easy and selective tinkering with genomes, raises a niggling question: why go to the trouble of making new life when you can simply tweak what already exists?

Thomas Deerinck and Mark Ellisman/NCMIR/UCSD
Each cell of JCVI-syn3.0 contains just 473 genes, fewer than any other independent organism.
Unlike the first synthetic cells made in 20101, in which Venter’s team at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, copied an existing bacterial genome and transplanted it into another cell, the genome of the minimal cells is like nothing in nature. Venter says that the cell, which is described in a paper released on 24 March in Science2, constitutes a brand new, artificial species.

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So: JC Venter and team have stripped down a pre-existing organism to what appears to be the essential set of genes, added “watermarks” and inspirational quotes – and this is part of a race to harness synthetic life?  If so, they’re pretty much racing themselves, because precious few others are trying to do the same things.
And if you DID want to, why make a completely artificial cell genome?  Why not use tailored viruses?  It’s a great development, don’t get me wrong, but it is very much part of the “because we can” school of biology, rather than anything directed towards something as coherent as a race to harness synlife*.
* = I should TM that…B-)

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