It’s ALIVE!

| 55 Comments

Get in the mood for this bit of news.

Here's the equivalent of that twitching hand of Frankenstein's monster:

artificial_myc.jpeg
Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Those are two colonies of Mycoplasma mycoides, their nucleoids containing entirely synthesized DNA. You can tell because the synthesized DNA contained a lacZ gene for beta-galactosidase, making the pretty blue product. That's one of the indicators that the artificial chromosome is functioning inside the cell; the DNA was also encoded with recognizable watermarks, and they also used a cell of a different species, M. capricolum, as the host for the DNA.

The experiment involved creating a strand of DNA as specified by a computer in a sequencing machine, and inserting it into a dead cell of M. capricolum, and then watching it revivify and express the artificial markers and the M. mycoides proteins. It really is like bringing the dead back to life.

It was also a lot more difficult than stitching together corpses and zapping it with lightning bolts. The DNA in this cell is over one million bases long, and it all had to be assembled appropriately with a sequencing machine. That was the first tricky part; current machines can't build DNA strands that long. They could coax sequences about a thousand nucleotides long out of the machines.

Then what they had to do was splice over a thousand of these short pieces into a complete bacterial chromosome. This was done with a combination of enzymatic reactions in a test tube, and in vivo assembly by recombination inside yeast cells. The end result is a circular bacterial chromosome that is, in its sequence, almost entirely the M. mycoides genome…but made from a sequence stored in a computer rather than a parental bacterium.

artificial_chrom.jpeg

Finally, there was one more hurdle to overcome, getting this large loop of DNA into the husk of a cell. These techniques, at least, had been worked out last year in experiments in which they had transplanted natural M. mycoides chromosomes into bacteria.

The end result is a new, functioning, replicating cell. One could argue that it isn't entirely artificial yet, since the artificial DNA is being placed in a cell of natural origin…but give it time. The turnover of lipids and proteins and such in the cytoplasm in the membrane means that within 30 generations all of the organism will have been effectively replaced, anyway.

It's a very small cell that has been created — the mycoplasmas have the smallest genomes of any extant cells. It's not much, but this is a breakthrough comparable to Wöhler's synthesis of urea. That event was a revelation, because it broke the idea that organic chemicals were somehow special and incapable of synthesis from inorganic molecules. And that led to the establishment of the whole field of organic chemistry, and we all know how big and important that has become to our culture.

Venter's synthesis of a simple life form is like the synthesis of urea in that it has the potential to lead to some huge new possibilities. Get ready for it.

If the methods described here can be generalized, design, synthesis, assembly, and transplantation of synthetic chromosomes will no longer be a barrier to the progress of synthetic biology. We expect that the cost of DNA synthesis will follow what has happened with DNA sequencing and continue to exponentially decrease. Lower synthesis costs combined with automation will enable broad applications for synthetic genomics.

We should be aware of the limitations right now, though. It was a large undertaking to assemble the 1 million base pair synthetic chromosome for a mycoplasma. If you're dreaming of using the draft Neandertal sequence to make your own resynthesized caveman, you're going to have to appreciate the fact that that is a job more than three orders of magnitude greater than building a bacterium. Also keep in mind that the sequence introduced into the bacterium was not exactly as intended, but contained expected small errors that had accumulated during the extended synthesis process.

A single transplant originating from the sMmYCp235 synthetic genome was sequenced. We refer to this strain as M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. The sequence matched the intended design with the exception of the known polymorphisms, 8 new single nucleotide polymorphisms, an E. coli transposon insertion, and an 85-bp duplication. The transposon insertion exactly matches the size and sequence of IS1, a transposon in E. coli. It is likely that IS1 infected the 10-kb sub-assembly following its transfer to E. coli. The IS1 insert is flanked by direct repeats of M. mycoides sequence suggesting that it was inserted by a transposition mechanism. The 85-bp duplication is a result of a non-homologous end joining event, which was not detected in our sequence analysis at the 10-kb stage. These two insertions disrupt two genes that are evidently non-essential.

So we aren't quite at the stage of building novel new multicellular plants or animals — that's going to be a long way down the road. But it does mean we can expect to be able to build custom bacteria within another generation, I would think, and that they will provide some major new industrial potential.

I know that there are some ethical concerns — Venter also mentions them in the paper — but I'm not personally too worried about them just yet. This cell created is not a monster with ten times the strength of an ordinary cell and the brain of a madman — it's actually more fragile and contains only genes found in naturally occurring species (and a few harmless markers). When the techniques become economically practical, everyone will be building specialized bacteria to carry out very specific biochemical reactions, and again, they're going to be poor generalists and aren't going to be able to compete in survival with natural species that have been honed by a few billion years of selection for fecundity and survivability.

Give it a decade or two, though, and we'll have all kinds of new capabilities in our hands. The ethical concerns now are a little premature, though, because we have no idea what our children and grandchildren will be able to do with this power. I don't think Wöhler could have predicted plastics from his discovery, after all: we're going to have to sit back, enjoy the ride, and watch carefully for new promises and perils as they emerge.


Gibson et al. (2010) Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome. Science Express.

Lartigue et al. (2009) Creating Bacterial Strains from Genomes That Have Been Cloned and Engineered in Yeast. Science 325:1693-1696.

55 Comments

Could those bacterial colonies be real? They look like eyeballs to me!

Either eyeballs or spools of tape in a cassette…

Heard this on the news this evening. The film series “resident evil” springs to mind !

Still, I wonder what AiG will make of it.

It goes to prove a famous scientist, who is in fact the Isaac Newton of our time, that there is No Free Lunch, why life cannot be purchased without intelligence. We have also violated SLOT. And as for evolution, it is still a bacterium, whatever you do it. And I can see all the hallmarks of design, and its signature in the cell. Darwinian RM+NS = EPIC FAIL

And by synthesizing a diamond in a lab, I have proven that diamonds are intelligently designed, that crystals cannot be formed without intelligence. TRADITIONAL CHEMISTRY == EPIC FAIL!

Fascinating. Somebody has violated the second law of thermodynamics? That would be amazing.

PZ Myers said:

Fascinating. Somebody has violated the second law of thermodynamics? That would be amazing.

Oh, I was laughing so hard about that post I didn’t really notice that laugh too!

Well, not only has Craig Venter kitbuilt a cell, he has also opened the door to a second-order perpetual motion machine. Unlimited free and nonpolluting power forever.

@Marichi “We have also violated SLOT.”

Heh-heh. “That what she said!” *rimshot*

Can’t wait until the actual paper comes out. I wonder if the difference in organelles makes much of a difference? Would you end up with a mosaic cell wall with parts from the old and new DNA?

Leeman

Mycoplasma cells have neither organelles nor cell walls.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycoplasma

So many of these processes really do make miracles seem less miraculous.

Lion (IRC) P.S. I saw the “synthesis of urea” shown as number two on a list of scientific “discoveries” which have changed Christian dogma in the last 400 years.

Marichi said:

It goes to prove a famous scientist, who is in fact the Isaac Newton of our time, that there is No Free Lunch, why life cannot be purchased without intelligence. We have also violated SLOT. And as for evolution, it is still a bacterium, whatever you do it. And I can see all the hallmarks of design, and its signature in the cell. Darwinian RM+NS = EPIC FAIL

What a lame claim. ANY experiment done in a laboratory would be discounted in that case. Nice movement of the goalposts there!

Here’s a hint of why your argument is so stupid: The chemical reactions in life forms, whether natural or artificial, are so well documented as to discredit the notion that anything supernatural is involved in their functioning, so it is only a small leap to conclude that there may not be anything supernatural about life’s origins billions of years ago.

Given enough time this could even possibly have implications in medical technology. Imagine being able to synthesize and then grow someone’s blood for transfusions. Not something that is just their blood type, but their actual blood. Or stem cells, the possibility to advance there without the ethical concerns of abortions.

This is a big deal and actually a huge step forward.

Dale Husband said:

ANY experiment done in a laboratory would be discounted in that case. Nice movement of the goalposts there!

Of course, silly. Any time we duplicate any natural phenomenon in the lab, that proves that the natural phenomenon was Designed. Any time we write a computer simulation of a natural phenomenon, that proves the natural phenomenon was Designed, too!

Now what puzzles me is … if I were to fold a piece of paper into an origami fox, would it prove that a real fox is Designed, too? Or would it prove real foxes are made out of paper?

But anyway, the Design inference is just too obvious to avoid. Look at Wile E. Coyote – every time he paints a fake tunnel into the side of a mountain, a real train comes roaring out and runs him down.

What is AiG going to say? That’s easy. They’re going to say something like:

This is further evidence that an intelligent creator is required for the origin of life from non-life.

Wait for it…

Creationists have been prepared to deal with such contingencies for a long time. To wit:

“The day when biochemists can take the basic chemicals […] and from these construct amino acids, and then protein molecules, and then the DNA molecules which can specify their reproduction and future organization, all without benefit of any pre-existing living material, is yet a long way off. In fact, the problem is so enormously complex that it almost certainly will never be done.

But even if, someday, it is accomplished, that achievement will not prove that the same thing happened by chance three billion years ago. Rather, it will prove, if anything, that an exceedingly high concentration of intelligent planning and precisely controlled laboratory apparatus were necessary for the accomplishment.”

– Henry M. Morris (ed.), Scientific Creationism. San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers. 1974.

Yves Meynard said:

Creationists have been prepared to deal with such contingencies for a long time. To wit:

“The day when biochemists can take the basic chemicals […] and from these construct amino acids, and then protein molecules, and then the DNA molecules which can specify their reproduction and future organization, all without benefit of any pre-existing living material, is yet a long way off. In fact, the problem is so enormously complex that it almost certainly will never be done.

But even if, someday, it is accomplished, that achievement will not prove that the same thing happened by chance three billion years ago. Rather, it will prove, if anything, that an exceedingly high concentration of intelligent planning and precisely controlled laboratory apparatus were necessary for the accomplishment.”

– Henry M. Morris (ed.), Scientific Creationism. San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers. 1974.

In other words, creationists have been speaking lies out of both sides of their mouths for decades.

phantomreader42 said:

Yves Meynard said:

Creationists have been prepared to deal with such contingencies for a long time. To wit:

“The day when biochemists can take the basic chemicals […] and from these construct amino acids, and then protein molecules, and then the DNA molecules which can specify their reproduction and future organization, all without benefit of any pre-existing living material, is yet a long way off. In fact, the problem is so enormously complex that it almost certainly will never be done.

But even if, someday, it is accomplished, that achievement will not prove that the same thing happened by chance three billion years ago. Rather, it will prove, if anything, that an exceedingly high concentration of intelligent planning and precisely controlled laboratory apparatus were necessary for the accomplishment.”

– Henry M. Morris (ed.), Scientific Creationism. San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers. 1974.

In other words, creationists have been speaking lies out of both sides of their mouths for decades.

The old chestnut of “Heads we win, tails, you lose!”

Pretty sure the Marichi post was a joke.

PZ Myers said:

Fascinating. Somebody has violated the second law of thermodynamics? That would be amazing.

They should be put in prison and the key thrown away. Sounds like a good Law and Order SVU episode

Why are creationists so predictable? I just found this on Hugh Ross’s ‘Reasons To Believe’ website;

“In the news: Craig Venter reports his team has created the world’s first synthetic cell. (Yahoo! News, msnbc.com) Find out how creating life in the lab undermines the evolutionary explanation for life’s origins, demonstrating instead that life is purposeful and intricately designed–by the Ultimate Designer.”

Oy.. Have they never thought about the implications of that shoddy logic for even one second?

Never mind, that’s a rhetorical question, I KNOW they haven’t.

phantomreader42 said: In other words, creationists have been speaking lies out of both sides of their mouths for decades.

Well, out of something anyway.

This is phenomenal news, but the hyperbole in the media is going to ruin the proper respect it’s due. It’s an amazing advance, but anything industrially useful is still a long way off.

Fantastic. I wonder that the creos who said that life is more than chemicals will say now?

Quoth PZ Myers: “… they’re going to be poor generalists and aren’t going to be able to compete in survival with natural species that have been honed by a few billion years of selection for fecundity and survivability.”

Famous last words, anyone?

Albatrossity said: … Mycoplasma cells have neither organelles nor cell walls. …

Now, I might not like this definition, but people often refer to any cellular structure as an organelle.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organe[…]c_organelles

“Nevertheless, the use of organelle to refer to non-membrane bound structures such as ribosomes is quite common”

Mycoplasma possesses ribosomes.

Stanton said:

The old chestnut of “Heads we win, tails, you lose!”

Or: “If humans imitate Nature, that means Nature MUST be imitating humans!”

Henry M. Morris said:

But even if, someday, it is accomplished, that achievement will not prove that the same thing happened by chance three billion years ago.…

Move along folks… nothing to see here.

Just an ordinary , run of the mill, artificial organism created using no divine powers whatsoever.

Just another kind of laboratory experiment, and we know laboratory experiments mean nothing.

Tom said:

Why are creationists so predictable? I just found this on Hugh Ross’s ‘Reasons To Believe’ website;

“In the news: Craig Venter reports his team has created the world’s first synthetic cell. (Yahoo! News, msnbc.com) Find out how creating life in the lab undermines the evolutionary explanation for life’s origins, demonstrating instead that life is purposeful and intricately designed–by the Ultimate Designer.”

Wait… the “ultimate designer” is Craig Venter?

As usual and as boringly predicted, the creationists are in the process of moving the goal posts. They have them on a wheeled cart so they can move them rapidly.

For decades, they taunted scientists with “if you are so smart, why haven’t you created life.” Now that we have, they are scrambling with their excuses and lies.

We scientists created modern 21st century western civilization with long lifespans, abundant food, and endless technological devices. What in the hell have the creationists done except sit on the sidelines and toss the occasional lie onto the field? Their contributions have been a net negative.

The brighter among them are already on to the next fallacy. “If you scientists are so smart, why haven’t you recreated the Big Bang.” They should hope they don’t get what they ask for. That might be the last experiment for another 13.7 billion years.

Science creating synthetic life from dead chemicals proves that it takes an intelligent designer.

Anything that occurs in nature that science CANNOT do, proves that a designer more intelligent than scientists is required.

Simple.

Sorry–channeling Byers–but putting it through my Standard Edited English filter.

crosspost from pharyngula

DNA cloning and making chimeric organisms is ancient history.

Whole animal cloning is routine and you can have your old pet cloned.

In a few decades Synthetic Life will be old news.

So what is left? Artificial Intelligence, immortality, and terraforming other planets.

I can see the headlines now. It is 2060 and the first immortal mice are created. Religious leaders claim that this is blasphemy, a discovery of the biblical Tree of Life*. No one cares. They are too busy lining up for their treatment.

Supposedly, god kicked us out of Eden and confused our language at the Tower of Babel so we couldn’t become too powerful and smart. Didn’t work but the xian god has never seemed all that competent so it isn’t surprising.

Of course, what is really happening was pointed out by Carl Sagan. We humans light candles to push back the darkness. Venter and we just lit another candle. Creationists hate those candles with a passion.

*And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22)[3]

Stuart Weinstein said:

PZ Myers said:

Fascinating. Somebody has violated the second law of thermodynamics? That would be amazing.

They should be put in prison and the key thrown away. Sounds like a good Law and Order SVU episode

Shouldn’t that be SP(hysics)U?

BP could use some made-to-order crude oil eating bacteria right about now. :)

I can see the headlines now. It is 2060 and the first immortal mice are created. Religious leaders claim that this is blasphemy, a discovery of the biblical Tree of Life*. No one cares. They are too busy lining up for their treatment.”

1. Overpopulation and resource depletion might become a bit of a problem.

2. Only a small number of rich people will be able to get the treatment–how will that turn out?

Helena Constantine said: Only a small number of rich people will be able to get the treatment–how will that turn out?

According to most movies on the subject, they will be found to be pleasantly crunchy, and tasty with mustard.

If this leads to a zombipocalypse, are you all prepared?

I’m willing to bet that THIS is the thing that is going to get Venter the Nobel.

Love him or hate him, the guy is one of the most creative and talented and driven scientists of our generation.

If this leads to a zombipocalypse, are you all prepared?

Get your shovels ready and start swinging. I’m gonna go build myself a bunker. This is the human race’s WATERLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

PZ said, “Someone has violated the Second Law of Thermodynamics?”

I ask, “Does that mean someone must be punished?”

Which brings to mind: “Christian Right Lobbies to Overturn Second Law of Thermodynamics” at http://www.sullivan-county.com/id3/[…]dynamics.htm or http://www.theonion.com/articles/ch[…]-law-of,281/

If you’re not familiar with this you’ll enjoy it. If you are familiar with it, you’ll enjoy it again.

Answers In Genesis have made a few initial comments:

http://www.answersingenesis.org/art[…]-created-lab

In the past several hours, headlines have suggested that life has been created in a research lab. For example, MSNBC.com blared, “It’s alive!”1

Check back tomorrow morning for an analysis by Dr. Georgia Purdom (PhD, molecular genetics) of our staff about this bacterium that has been synthetically formed. For the moment, we will just state that all of the components required in forming this bacterium were already in existence. This research, while brilliantly executed, has nothing to do with evolution in the molecules-to-man sense. As we will reveal Saturday on this website (in the News to Note feature), the research of intelligent scientists working in state-of-the art labs has still not produced anything near a new life form from scratch. Moreover, the mindless process of evolution—even given billions of years—would not fare any better

So, Dr. Purdom will be working overtime this evening putting together a response !

Actually, I did hear a spokesperson from the Royal Society (he’s due to be the next president, can’t remember his name) on BBC Radio 4 this morning (the Today programme) saying something similar to AiG (i.e. that life as such had not been created ) and that it was merely the genetic coding (i.e. the DNA) that was synthetic, not the actual cell itself.

He also played down the significance of the development with respect to new technology etc. I was quite surprised at his responses to the interviewer, especially given all the media hype over the last 24hrs.

Peter Henderson said:

Answers In Genesis have made a few initial comments:

http://www.answersingenesis.org/art[…]-created-lab

Check back tomorrow morning for an analysis by Dr. Georgia Purdom (PhD, molecular genetics) of our staff.…

Hmmm. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but who is Georgia Purdom? Are they grooming the next “genuine scientist on our sidetm” now that Michael “flagellum” Behe has grown tired of the professional ridicule and gone silent?

Dale Husband said:

Could those bacterial colonies be real? They look like eyeballs to me!

That’s strange - I didn’t think of eyeballs when I first saw them.

stevaroni said:

Are they grooming the next “genuine scientist on our sidetm” now that Michael “flagellum” Behe has grown tired of the professional ridicule and gone silent?

Has Behe tired of the fray? I checked LeHigh and they still have their disclaimer page in place.

For some reason I retain, despite everything, some liking for Behe … comes across as one of these “friendly woodchuck” types … and that disclaimer makes me cringe a bit. OK, he asked for it but it still feels like a really drastic thing to do to your own faculty.

Dembski, now … I get the impression that if anyone confessed some liking for him, he would ask them why so he could figure out how to get them to stop.

BTW, from UToob, Mike Shermer VS Georgia Purdom:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_CLIGJW6Ic

Crummy audio. I didn’t sit through it.

t was merely the genetic coding (i.e. the DNA) that was synthetic, not the actual cell itself.

the cell replicates.

after the first replication…

it’s all based on the synthetic genome.

that you need kindling to start a fire, doesn’t mean you need kindling to maintain it.

That’s strange - I didn’t think of eyeballs when I first saw them.

sure! It’s a smiley face with a sarcastic smile, see?

the micrometer measure is the mustache.

Ichthyic said:

that you need kindling to start a fire, doesn’t mean you need kindling to maintain it.

Also, that you need kindling to conveniently use fire, and have it around in order to study it, doesn’t prove that fires cannot happen naturally.

after the first replication…

ok, I would correct that a bit, and more precisely say something like after the 20th replication or so, before ALL the various parts of the original cell have been replaced.

still…

One could make a good theological argument that God’s intention was always to make man his equal. I won’t do that here, since I suspect most of you would waste more energy arguing with me than attending to the excellent and interesting work of Dr. Venter.

raven said:

crosspost from pharyngula

DNA cloning and making chimeric organisms is ancient history.

Whole animal cloning is routine and you can have your old pet cloned.

In a few decades Synthetic Life will be old news.

So what is left? Artificial Intelligence, immortality, and terraforming other planets.

I can see the headlines now. It is 2060 and the first immortal mice are created. Religious leaders claim that this is blasphemy, a discovery of the biblical Tree of Life*. No one cares. They are too busy lining up for their treatment.

Supposedly, god kicked us out of Eden and confused our language at the Tower of Babel so we couldn’t become too powerful and smart. Didn’t work but the xian god has never seemed all that competent so it isn’t surprising.

Of course, what is really happening was pointed out by Carl Sagan. We humans light candles to push back the darkness. Venter and we just lit another candle. Creationists hate those candles with a passion.

*And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22)[3]

Synthetic life? WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?!

Meh. On second thought, a bacterium is a bacterium is a bacterium.

I.E. “BUT IT’S STILL A DOG”

Dale Husband said:

Could those bacterial colonies be real? They look like eyeballs to me!

Aureolas?

Just Bob said:

Science creating synthetic life from dead chemicals proves that it takes an intelligent designer.

Anything that occurs in nature that science CANNOT do, proves that a designer more intelligent than scientists is required.

Simple.

No. This is *manufacture* not “design”. The only way that we know that these items are manufactured is that the authors of the paper say how they did it. Other scientists will conduct further experiments to test the claims of these scientists.

We model manufacture, we do not detect design.

What some call “Intelligent Design” might more accurately be called “deliberate engineering toward a predetermined goal”.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on May 20, 2010 4:26 PM.

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