A Human-Designed Microbe by Summer's End, Scientist Promises
By the end of this summer, the world may see its first entirely synthetic organisms, built from scratch, from the coding letters of DNA. That's if geneticist Craig Venter gets his way. In profile published May 30, he told the New York Times Sunday magazine his plans for stitching together a microbe from a human-made design.
Venter is known for sharing the first-place spot with the U.S. National Institutes of Health in the race to sequence the human genome in 2000. More recently, in 2010, his lab announced they had brought to life a bacterium with entirely synthetic DNA. Scientists had coded the synthetic DNA themselves, mostly to resemble a bacterium that already exists in nature. (Additions included literary quotes and the scientists' names).
Now, Venter's scientists have completed two designs for microbes that wouldn't mimic nature, but are instead novel programs for living cells. They're supposed to have the least amount of DNA necessary for Iife and far less DNA than anything living now.
Such a bug could serve as the foundation for adding extra genes to perform functions that would be useful for people, Venter said. Future scientists could add genes to the basic microbe to make it break down pollution, produce food or produce fuel. It would act like the basic model of a car, to which people could add whatever extras they liked. Many other scientists are working on identifying genes that help naturally-occurring life forms make fuel out of plants, absorb pollution in the soil and more.
The researchers are working on assembling the DNA according to the design. They should finish before the end of the summer, Venter told the New York Times.
Other scientists are more skeptical of how much researchers can do with synthetic biology right now. Most believe it will take decades to see the full benefits of the field, the New York Times reported.
Depending on who's right, the world may soon get designer microbes to solve environmental problems including oil spills, food insecurity and the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. At the same time, that means humankind will have to decide even sooner whether the microbes are worth the risk they'll escape and wreak their own havoc.
[via the New York Times]