Under the category of Really Cool Science

I think this writing’s been on the wall for a while.  It was a matter of when, not if.  But the first synthetic biology experiments have been completed, and were apparently successful.  Follow the link for a writeup at Scientific American:

Man-made Genetic Instructions Yield Living Cells for the First Time: Scientific American

So the big issue here, certain to create all manner of fuss and to-do in religious circles, is that a team of ordinary human scientists were able to build a bacterial genome from scratch by pulling gene sequences out of a genome database, synthesizing the DNA, and then injecting it into a cell that could accept it.  In biological terms, they built the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides via standard chemical synthesis, stitched it together and amplified it in engineered yeast and E. coli cells, and then injected the complete genome into an enucleated Mycoplasma capricolum cell, which went on to behave as an M. mycoides cell as per its synthetic instructions.

Why is this important?

After all, the "only thing" (a nearly incomprehensibly huge thing, but it’s still only one thing) the researchers did was make the genome.  Cytoplasm, cell membrane, and cell wall were all "naturally made," a "brainless" cell waiting for instructions.  BUT.  Upon provision of the necessary "brain," the cell carried on with all the necessary functions of life, making proteins and even reproducing like any other naturally occurring bacterium.  That totally mundane thing – a cell that lived – is perhaps the largest achievement ever to hit the annals of biology.  Why?  That team of researchers proved that life is not, in fact, an irreducibly complex, metaphysical thing that is solely the province of God.  They were able to take something totally man-made and use it to make something live.  The implications of that cannot be overstated.

Should they have done it?  I’m inclined to think so.  They went to great lengths to establish sensible protocols – they watermarked their synthetic dna so that it’s distinguishable from the natural equivalent, for example, and the PI has been very vocal about demanding ethical discussions as the technology has progressed.  Better to have a group like this do it than a pack of bioterrorists.  There are so many things that we will have to be careful of going forward – the bioweapons potential of this technology is enormous, but the positive potential is just as large.  It’s a brave new world, and I’m terribly interested to see where we go next.


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