Has Science Created Life?

By Alice Park

It’s the ultimate science experiment, really — taking a handful of chemicals, mixing them in just the right combination and presto — life!

And after nearly 15 years of such toiling in his labs in Rockville, Md., J. Craig Venter, co-mapper of the human genome, has done just that. Reporting in the journal Science, he describes a remarkable experiment in which he and the team at his eponymous institute have pieced together the entire genome of a bacterium and then inserted those genetic instructions into another bacterium. The cell booted up, and life — by nearly any definition — was created.

“We’re basically getting new life out of the computer,” Venter says. “We started with a genetic code in the computer, wrote the ‘software,’ put it into the cell and transformed it biologically into a new species. We’re still stunned by it as a concept.”

With Venter’s breakthrough it’s now possible to splice and snap together genetic material to create a Legoland’s worth of new genetic combinations. Ideally, some of these would have robust industrial purposes, such as manufacturing bacteria that can churn out valuable vaccine components to shorten production times during an epidemic, or co-opting organisms such as algae to pump out new sources of biofuel-based energy.

“Just imagine these cells where all we do is put in a new piece of chemical software and all the characteristics of the cell start changing to become what was dictated by the new software,” says Venter. “These are biological transformers.”

The paper is the final and most critical step toward realizing what began as scientific curiosity among the scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute back in the early 1990s, when many of the same researchers first succeeded in sequencing the entire genome of a self-replicating organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. That led to the generation of the complete sequencing of the smallest known genome, at 582,000 base pairs, belonging to another bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium. Such smallness was intriguing because it led Venter to the philosophical question that inspired the current research — what was the minimum genome required to create life in the lab?

For the study just released, the answer turned out to be about 1 million, and the paper describes how he did it. DNA is made up of millions of paired molecules known as bases, some of which make up genes, that when read by enzymes produce the proteins essential for sustaining life. Venter intended to build his own version of the tiny M. genitalium genome, but the species replicates slowly and that would have caused delays in his study. Instead, he turned to the larger but significantly quicker bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides, with 1 million base pairs. He fed the blueprint of the M. mycoides genome into a computer, mixed together varying combinations of the four basic elements of DNA — the bases adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine — and pieced them together in three stages. To ensure that the strings of bases were lining up in the correct order, he and his team attached known segments of DNA to the ends of each piece, allowing them to find and link up with their appropriate sections like genetic Velcro joining.

What made the work unwieldy is that even a very small genome has a lot of base pairs and current sequencing machines can handle only 50 to 80 at a time. To align the ever-growing strings of DNA, Venter thus enlisted the help of some natural born synthesizers — yeast and E. coli. These organisms are quite adept at stitching together huge pieces of DNA, and once they did their job, the genome was complete.

But that was only half the goal. The next step was to insert the man-made genome into a cell and see if it could function properly and cause the cell to divide. “The first transplants we did — we usually do them on a Friday and on Monday morning we come back to see if anything grew — didn’t work,” Venter says. “Then a month ago, I got a text at six in the morning that we had a colony.”

Venter is the first to concede that while what he has created is life, it’s not new life, since the synthetic genome is a copy of an existing one, albeit with a few modifications. In order to confirm that the genome they generated was indeed entirely manmade, the scientists inserted some genetic watermarks, including their names and three philosophical quotations. Since the four-based genetic code is read in three-letter triplet combinations, the scientists devised a new code in which the 64 possible triplets symbolize the letters of the alphabet and punctuation. One of the quotes, by James Joyce, was especially apt: “First to live, to err, to fall, to triumph and to create life out of life.” Says Venter understatedly: “The chances of finding these sequences in the natural genome are close to zero.”

Read the entire Time article, here.

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7 Responses to Has Science Created Life?

  1. I am not particularly scientifically minded, but this article does not indicate to me what it seems to be claiming. In the first and second paragraphs it speaks of inserting the man-made DNA into another bacteria and “transforming” a cell into a new species… To me this seems like they still needed something already living.

    So the article says that “life—by nearly any definition— was created”, but I am wondering if creation—by its most basic definition (bring into existence, not “transform”)— occurred.

    Any insights from the more scientific among us?

    • Audarya-lila dasa

      To say that Dr. Venter ‘created life’ in his lab is way off the mark. What he did was more like a heart transplant which no one would equate with ‘creating life’. In order for DNA to function it has to be transcribed into a type of RNA called messenger RNA. This requires transcription enzymes. After the mRNA is made it has to be translated (a term describing the process of ‘decoding’ the three base sequences that correspond to unique amino acids) into protein. This requires a complex set of proteins and RNA bound together in what is called a ribosome. It also requires another type of RNA called transfer RNA which binds the amino acids and places them together based on the code. Another enzyme call a transferase is reponsible for joining the amino acids togehter via peptide bonds. At any rate, this is a very simple descritpion of a very complex process that goes on in cells. I used to work for a research products company that ‘manufactured’ most of the enzymes that carry out these functions. But the translation process is so complex that the only way to get a functioning translation solution was to lyse living cells and quick freeze the lysate for reseachers to later use with their mRNA of choice.

      I hope you get the point of what I am describing. Dr. Venter didn’t do anything more than take the next obvious step in manipulation of DNA. We have all heard about ‘cloning’ experiments where the DNA of one animal is inserted into the egg of another animal and a clone is produced. The same thing is happening here with the only differnce being that Dr. Venter’s lab used the known sequence of a bacterial genome and synthesized it in the lab using DNA synthesizers and then putting all the pieces together using DNA ligase (which by the way is another enzyme that requires life to produce). There are definitely some technical hurdles that his lab had to jump over to do what they did – but they most certainly did not ‘create life’.

      On a side note – the wonderful possibilities described in the article as possible outcomes of this work were already possbile and researchers are actively working on them. They don’t require the insertion of the entire genome. Vaccines are routinely produced in bacteria and can be ramped up very quickly – this doesn’t require the type of technology that Venter is working on. It is a simple matter of producing large quantities of viral antigen which can be done quickly once the antigenic determinants are discovered and sequenced.

  2. Vamsidhari dasa

    Yes, Dr. Venter has created the first SYNTHETIC cell. Don’t get all bent out of shape now. He is not sating that he is God. Simply by combining the genetic information from two different cells he created a new cell that never existed before. OMG! it is the end of the world. I think this is an AWESOME experiment that will have great benefit for medicine and science but it might also be used to create Terminators we just never know.

  3. Gauravani dasa

    This seems more like engineering that creation, but that depends on one’s definition of life. I can see how a materialist would label it creation.

    The implications are huge and would probably bring up questions similar to those in the field of artificial intelligence. It would also introduce some interesting ethical questions.

  4. What they have really created are ‘zombie cells’. They took a living cell, removed it’s nucleus and inserted an artificial DNA core which subsequently hijacked and took over the existing cell structures. From that point there can be a lot of different outcomes, some of which are hard to predict. At any rate, it is a very significant moment in science, perhaps comparable to detonating a first nuclear warhead. It moves genetic engineering to a completely new platform.

    • Audrya-lila dasa

      Just a quick correction to your post – bacterial cells do not have a nucleus. I also would not say that their acheivement was ‘very significant’ and it certainly doesn’t come close to comparing with the first nuclear warhead. Most people won’t even hear about this achievement, which I believe speaks to where it ranks amongst significant advancements in science.

  5. Ray K..........

    …and hokus-pokus, life was created.

    Ah, no.

    Sorry, I can’t buy it. You do not put yeast into warm sugar-water, then add flour and claim you’ve created pizza dough. Frankly, a man does not insert his penis into a woman’s vagina, make her pregnant and then claim responsibility for having created life. We, as happy humans, make these claims all of the time. We’d like to proudly claim that we have created this and that, but we have not.

    Look at your hand. Turn your palm toward your face and take a long, hard look at it. We did not create that hand. We may be responsible for the germs on it, we maybe even be able to claim responsibility for for having altered those jerms. But to claim to have created life from mere “nothing”, has not been proven to this mere mortal.

    After many years of being agnostic, I’ve spent many years contemplating the sun. Then, lo and behold, it dawned on me. No matter how hard you squint, moan and push, you can not create nor destroy energy. Only one being can do that, and folks…..that ain’t us. While God may indeed be within everything….only the Supreme can do the creating and the preserving and the destroying.

    Simple God math.

    Hari OM!

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