Monday, May 24, 2010

Stop the presses!

The world is not ending, we are not becoming gods, and Craig Venter did not build the antichrist.
What am I ranting about?  Geneticist Craig Venter just published his work on the creation of a living cell from synthetic DNA. To understand what this really means for all of us, let's overview some basic biology. 
1) The Central Dogma: DNA encodes RNA which encodes proteins. This is OLD and was proposed by the guy who solved the structure of DNA, Francis Crick. Along the way we've discovered that DNA and RNA can act as enzymes, which were previously believed to only consist of proteins. We've also found that RNA can encode DNA, which happens a lot in viruses. However, for the sake of this argument and basic biology, let's say the central dogma is true. 

2) If the central dogma is true, then you need DNA to encode RNA, which is often the regulatory step in what happens in the cells. RNA leads to protein synthesis. Proteins make metabolism happen. They break down fuel like sugars, fats, and proteins and build up information (DNA), protection (cell wall and lipids), and a variety of other specialized factors like defense, movement, and sensing. 

3) This all happens within a cell. There are two major groups of cells: Prokaryotic cells belong to single celled organisms. These are abundantly less complex than Eukaryotic cells, which are even abundantly less complex than eukaryotic cells that differentiate into different tissues. I mean, look at the two examples here: 

Left is the prokaryotic, right is the eukaryotic. I mean, look at how much more stuff the eukaryotic cell has!

So, what did this Venter guy do already? Well, in 2008, he reported the synthesis of the first completely synthetic (not biologically derived) genome. What's even more interesting? He owns his own company, so unless I'm mistaken, your tax dollars didn't pay for this. That also means that he doesn't have to make the information about how he made that genome publically available. 

So anyway, this month in Science, he took a genome related to the one reported in the 2008 paper and put it in a 'clean cell' from a related bacteria that had been stripped of all DNA. Pretty neat, huh? I agree. 

But this is the thing...
It would be one thing if he took some lipids and a couple of proteins and made a homemade cell and then put his DNA in and turned it on. He didn't do that. He took an existing, functional cell with all the bells and whistles and hijacked the DNA. He replaced the pilot who was supposed to be flying the plane with an imposter...and lo-and-behold that imposter can fly that kind of plane. 

To me, that means, he didn't create life. And people should simmer down because anyone who was paying attention realized what he was up to in the slough of publications that he has been churning out since 2000. I mean, just read the first couple of paragraphs of his Science paper (link here). He cites himself heavily because they've been building up to this for years. 

This can mean some pretty cool things for the future of science. 

Imagine you lose your limb. Or you have a huge tumor that is going to require losing your liver to remove from your body. Let's say we can take your genome, synthesized and packaged up into a nucleus, and put it in one of those 'stem-like' cells. Then, you can exogenously apply hormones and stimuli to make the correct genes express and grow yourself an organ or a limb in your own body, possibly on a false-bone scaffold or within a mold.
Am I being too imaginative? Perhaps, but it's more possible now than before Venter's work.

Science is amazing. It makes the impossible possible. I think Venter is reaching a little bit when he says he 'created synthetic life' - he took a known genome, made it himself, and stuck it in an existing cell. For the religious, he copied God's work and called it his own.

I'm more afraid of Skynet becoming self-aware (nerd alert!) than this leading to the end of mankind. 

What do you think of this type of news? Should I talk more about science news or do you want me to stick to food and food science?

1 comment:

  1. The food science blogs are great, but this is very interesting stuff too! I encourage you to do both, they are very well written and appealing to anyone that likes science.