Food for Thought: Synthetic Biology

A lot has been written since last week’s publication of Craig Venter’s latest coup – the creation of the first cell controlled by a synthetic genome. While the reactions span from the  alarmist (“playing god”) to the dismissive (“nothing new”), most commentaries overlook that Venter has demonstrated that life – for now, bacteria – can be customized to an extend that by far exceeds conventional genetic technologies which merely introduce a few new genes into existing organisms.

For now, it is impossible to forecast the success of building and introducing synthetic genomes to manufacture organisms that spill out biofuel or clean up polluted shores at unprecedented efficiency. Synthetic genomes have only recently become available as the technology to accurately synthesize and assemble large pieces of DNA has made tremendous progress and has led to decreasing prices for synthetic DNA. Venter used 1078 cassettes of 1080 base pairs each which were assembled to a genome of 1.08 million base pairs. In comparison, the E. coli genome consists of about 4.6 million base pairs.

The real challenge now is understanding and commanding the interplay of the multiple genes that make up a functioning genome. Venter’s new bacteria provide an exciting testing ground for this kind of research, and that’s why the first companies to profit from this innovation will be the ones providing the technologies to synthesize and assemble large and complex genes.

In the meantime, the place to look at the field’s progress on a regular basis, is SyntheticBiology and the Biobricks Foundation.