.Making the World a Better Place, One Evil Mad Scientist at a Time ...
From the Zonkey's mouth:
Scientists foresee many potential positive applications including new pharmaceuticals, biologically produced (See below “green”) fuels, and the possibility of rapidly generating vaccines against emerging microbial diseases.
However, as with many technologies, there is the potential for misuse and accidents. Finding ways to mitigate possible nefarious uses and to prevent accidents in the laboratories of legitimate users so that positive uses are not undercut is an important concern of scientists, governments, and a large variety of stakeholders.
Synthetic life has been created in the laboratory in a feat of ingenuity that pushes the boundaries of humanity’s ability to manipulate the natural world.
Craig Venter, the biologist who led the effort to map the human genome, said yesterday that the first cell controlled entirely by man-made genetic instructions had been produced.
The synthetic bacterium, nicknamed Synthia, has been hailed as a step change in biological engineering, allowing the creation of organisms with specialised functions that could never have evolved in nature. The team at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, is investigating how the technology could yield microbes that make vaccines, and algae that turn carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon biofuels.
The achievement has, however, stirred ethical concerns. Critics called for tighter regulation, citing the potential for bioterror or “bioerror” that could endanger health or the environment.
Dr Venter, who has been working on synthetic life for a decade, told The Times: “It is our final triumph. This is the first synthetic cell. It’s the first time we have started with information in a computer, used four bottles of chemicals to write up a million letters of DNA software, and actually got it to boot up in a living organism.
“Though this is a baby step, it enables a change in philosophy, a change in thinking, a change in the tools we have. This cell we’ve made is not a miracle cell that’s useful for anything, it is a proof of concept. But the proof of concept was key, otherwise it is just speculation and science fiction. This takes us across that border, into a new world.”
Julian Savulescu, Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, said: “Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally. The potential is in the far future, but real and significant. But the risks are also unparalleled.”
In the research, published in the journal Science, scientists made a synthetic copy of the genome of a bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides. Several inert DNA “watermarks” were added to distinguish the synthetic genome from the natural version.
The man-made genome was then transplanted into a related bacterium, Mycoplasma capricolum. This “rebooted” the cell so that it was controlled by the synthetic genome, transforming it into another species. The cell has since divided more than a billion times.
Paul Freemont, of the Centre for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College London, described the achievement as a “step change advance”. He said: “The applications of this enabling technology are enormous.”
Others, however, are unconvinced. Ben Davis, who works on synthetic biology at the University of Oxford, said: “I still think we are quite a long way away from artificial life. “You could take this synthetic genome and write in new genes with known functions, but that is not so different from molecular biology at the moment.”
David King, of the pressure group Human Genetics Alert, called for a moratorium on similar research and Pat Mooney, of the ETC Group, which campaigns against biotechnology, said: “This is a Pandora’s box moment. We’ll all have to deal with the fallout from this alarming experiment.”http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/biology_evolution/article7132299.ece
Mad scientist who wants to put a microbe in your tank
The maverick scientist Craig Venter was dubbed Darth Venter for wanting to charge the human race a fortune to read its own genetic code. Now the balding Vietnam veteran has another cunning plan: to get exclusive rights to the bare essentials of life and create green fuels that will make him a dollar trillionaire.
Venter, a former school drop-out with an IQ of 142, was vilified by the scientific establishment for taking them on in a race to sequence the human genome – the biochemical instruction manual for homo sapiens. The result in 2000 was a dead heat between the publicly funded Human Genome Project, which was battling to release the knowledge free of charge, and Venter with his scheme to sell the patented findings.
A man of supreme immodesty, the 60-year-old American relished the controversy, flashing his Learjet, yacht and Rolex, his Hollywood-style interviews and his ability to raise $1 billion on the New York stock market in a single day. Immune to insults deriding him as “Hitler”, “a self-aggrandising pain in the arse” and “an opportunistic maniac”, he proclaimed: “Is my science of the level consistent with other people who have gotten the Nobel? Yes.”
Although Venter had become arguably the best-known molecular biologist after Watson and Crick, the discoverers of the DNA double helix, his proposed money-spinner was dead in the water and his firm sacked him. In the cartoon-book tradition of egocentric scientists, Venter railed against the “morons” who had failed to understand his vision. He began to hatch another fiendish scheme for world dominance.
This one is a real cracker. Researchers at his nonprofit J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, have laboured hard in search of biology’s holy grail – a way of creating synthetic bacteria that would produce environmentally friendly fuels as natural waste products. Their first breakthrough, announced last month, was discovering the absolute minimum of genes necessary for a simple microbe to function.
Last week Venter’s team stunned the scientific world by revealing that with this knowledge they had carried out a “species transplant” that replaced the entire genetic code of one bacterium with another. Now the inventor plans to design new codes on computers to programme synthetic microbes to produce fuel from sunlight.
Fears have been raised about the dangers of tinkering with life and releasing malignant bugs. “We don’t yet know what are the social, ethical and even bio-weapons implications of this research,” said Hope Shand of the ETC technology pressure group. The most ominous note was struck by a scientist at MIT: “The genetic code is 3.6 billion years old. It’s time for a rewrite.” Venter claims the project was interrupted for 18 months while a bioethics panel was reconvened to review it.
Not everyone thinks Venter is an evil monopolist. “I found him to be a personable, chubby, middle-aged bloke who was quite open,” said one interviewer. “He’s a good scientist, but a maverick. It was his misfortune to cross swords with some of the most powerful scientific institutions, which closed ranks and sent him to Coventry.” He also tells bad jokes.
If Venter’s wheeze pans out he will be laughing all the way to the bank. “Obviously, if we made an organism that produced fuel, that could be the first billion or trillion-dollar organism,” he told Newsweek. These organisms, he predicted, will “replace the petrochemical industry, most food, clean energy and bio-remedication”. Synthetic Genomics, a start-up company in which he has invested heavily, should be producing “within the decade”, he said last week.
It’s not the only realm where Venter is making waves. In a project he compares with the voyages of Charles Darwin, his yacht Sorcerer II has been roaming the seas collecting microbes that he envisages will lead to vast colonies of bacteria scrubbing the atmosphere of greenhouse gases. In the Sargasso Sea alone, he and his team discovered 1.2m new genes – double the number previously known. Environmental groups spoilt this achievement by accusing him of stealing Bermuda’s microbes.
He has also taken a voyage around himself by mapping his own DNA. The results are changing what he eats and the way he lives. After discovering he has an above-average risk of a heart attack, he adopted a healthier start to the day with a high-fibre, low-fat diet. The upside is that he is not vulnerable to mad cow disease, allowing him a steak in the evening.
Venter was born into a military family in Millbrae, California, a middle-class suburb near San Francisco airport. His parents had met in the Marines in 1943 and were not enchanted by his unruly habits of chasing planes on his bike and getting into trouble at the expense of his studies. A champion swimmer and a lothario, he was threatened by one girlfriend’s gun-toting father who told him to leave his daughter alone.
He dropped out of high school and by the age of 18 he was a surfer and beach bum, living in his grandmother’s garage. In 1967 he was called up to serve in Vietnam as a medic. Arriving in time for the communist Vietcong’s Tet offensive against US bases, he spent six months sorting the quick from the dead at the navy hospital in Da Nang.
“I had to learn in real time what triage actually meant,” he recalled. “I dealt with the death of thousands of men my age. It was a life-altering experience. That is where my sense of urgency comes from.”
He returned to the US with a Vietnamese wife, determined to get a medical degree. In just five years he earned his BA and PhD at the University of California medical school in San Diego. With a failing marriage and a young son, he shifted into medical research and began teaching at the state university of New York, where he met his future wife and collaborator, Claire Fraser.
He first grasped the importance of decoding genes at the government-funded US National Institutes of Health, which he joined in 1984. Frustrated by the slow progress and contemptuous of his peers, in a blinding revelation he realised it was unnecessary to trawl the entire genome to find the active parts. He switched his attention from the DNA blueprint to the messenger molecules (RNA) that a cell makes from the blueprint.
The breakthrough enabled him to sequence genes with unprecedented speed. His success, though remarkable to some, did not impress Watson, the father of DNA research, who dismissed the result as work “that could be run by monkeys”. The criticism and lack of funding prompted Venter to set up a private research body, the Institute for Genomic Research in 1992. Three years later he astonished scientists by unveiling the first genome of a free-living organism, Haemophilus influenzae, a major cause of childhood ear infections and meningitis.
It was in May 1998 that Venter had dropped his bombshell: he announced the formation of a commercial company, Celera Genomics, to crack the entire human genetic code in just three years. At that stage the public Human Genome Project was three years into a rather leisurely 10-year programme, scheduled to end in 2003.
The race soon became a battleground of dirty tactics, vicious bureaucratic in-fighting and black propaganda. It was also a personal tussle between the flamboyant Venter and the understated British academic (now Sir) John Sulston of the Wellcome Trust, a leading figure in the largely US-funded Human Genome Project.
Sulston was scathing about his rival: “If global capitalism gets complete control of the human genome, that is very bad news indeed. I do not believe it should be under the control of one person. But that is what Celera are trying to do as far as they can. Craig had gone morally wrong.”
Venter’s ripostes betrayed a hint of paranoia: “I have been a thorn in their side for some time because I keep coming up with breakthroughs. Having a rival in any sense is unacceptable to them. They are trying to destroy someone they view as a serious competitor.”
On June 26, 2000, presided over by President Bill Clinton, both sides presented their draft results. Few people went to Venter’s celebration party. “It was held in a huge venue that was virtually empty,” recalled a journalist who did attend.
The synthetic biology that Venter is pioneering springs from an attitude that scientists are building machines, not living things. These are seen as computers capable of replicating themselves, with genes as software controlling hardware cells – a view that dates from Watson’s and Crick’s discoveries in 1953. But Venter is taking the process to a new level by creating new hardware and software where none existed.
The question is, who will benefit most – Venter or mankind?