The Top 10: Synthetic Cells


If you like “Top 10” lists, then one to keep your eye on is Science magazine’s Top Science Breakthrough of 2010. I predict it will be the creation of the synthetic cell. Before we decide whether this is something to celebrate, or cause for alarm, we need to understand the basics of this breakthrough.

In May 2010, Craig Venter announced that he had created artificial life. It’s been called “the synthetic cell.” Venter and his team of 20 worked for over ten years and spent $40 million dollars to artificially reproduce the genome of a bacteria.

The day of the announcement, a reporter called me for a comment. What did I do? I checked with experts. In order to make wise decisions about innovative technologies, we must first be clear what the technology is, and what it does. So, let’s unpack what this “synthetic cell” is.

Venter took the genome—the DNA, if you will—out of Bacteria A, and He decoded it. This is the same kind of process that the Human Genome Project followed in mapping human DNA. Next, the team took that code, now stored on a computer, and tweaked it a little bit. They added a “watermark,” an identifying set of letters that would make it clear that this is a manmade, not a naturally occurring, genome. He included his name, the names of team members, and a few phrases, such as James Joyce’s “to recreate life out of life.”

Then, the computerized code was shipped off to a lab. Using the computer instructions and four bottles of chemicals the lab assembled a genome from the four nucleotide building blocks of DNA known by the letters G, A, C, and T.

Then, the team took Bacteria B and removed its genome. Using the made-to-order genome derived from Bacteria A, they inserted it into Bacteria B. Guess what happened? Bacteria B started dividing, proving it is a living organism. And, it began shedding its own characteristics, and soon started acting like Bacteria A. The team succeeded in transforming Bacteria B into Bacteria A, a different species. When they analyzed the new bacteria’s genome, they found the “watermark,” the names and phrases.

Technically, only the genome is synthetic. The team had to start with living bacteria, and used the shells of the cells for inserting the synthetic genome. But, the new cell is a manmade artifact. That’s why this is a stunning innovation, and probably the biotech breakthrough of 2010.

This discovery is what we call “proof of concept.” Which means that the biological or technological innovation works. It doesn’t necessarily have to do anything; it just has to work. As Venter said, his new cell doesn’t have a particular function. He just proved that it could be done.

As Christians, we need to understand the complexities of biotech breakthroughs before we can discuss the bioethical questions. Now that we have a basic grasp of the science, we’re ready to delve into an ethical framework. Stay tuned.


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