I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet. — Freeman Dyson
By John Brockman
On May 20th, J. Craig Venter and his team at J.C Venter Institute announced the creation of a cell controlled by a synthetic genome in a paper published in SCIENCE. As science historian George Dyson points out, "from the point of view of technology, a code generated within a digital computer is now self-replicating as the genome of a line of living cells. From the point of view of biology, a code generated by a living organism has been translated into a digital representation for replication, editing, and transmission to other cells."
This new development is all about operating on a large scale. "Reading the genetic code of a wide range of species," the paper says, "has increased exponentially from these early studies. Our ability to rapidly digitize genomic information has increased by more than eight orders of magnitude over the past 25 years." This is a big scaling up in our technological abilities. Physicist Freeman Dyson, commenting on the paper, notes that "the sequencing and synthesizing of DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life." But it remains to be seen how it will serve in practice.
One question is whether or not a DNA sequence alone is enough to generate a living creature. One way of reading the paper suggests this doesn't seem to be the case because of the use of old microplasma cells into which the DNA was inserted — that this is not about "creating life" since the new life requires an existing living recipient cell. If this is the case, what is the chance of producing something de novo? The paper might appear to be about a somewhat banal technological feat. The new techniques build on existing capabilities. What else is being added, what is qualitatively new?
While it is correct to say that the individual cell was not created, a new line of cells (dare one say species?) was generated. This is new life that is self-propagating, i.e. "the cells with only the synthetic genome are self replicating and capable of logarithmic growth."
The paper concludes with the following:
"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."
Will the new techniques described in the paper allow us to bring extinct species back to life? Here are three examples of three possible stages after the production of a bacterial cell: 1. generating a human, i.e. a Neanderthal; 2. generating a woolly mammoth; 3. generating a tasmanian wolf.
Generating a Neanderthal, given the recent mapping of the Neanderthal genome by Svante Pääbo, seems to be feasible, but it will raise ethical hackles. Don't hold your breath waiting for someone to try it. Generating a woolly mammoth will not be an ethical problem but it also seems feasible by using an elephant's placenta: inject mammoth DNA into a modern elephant egg from which elephant DNA has been removed, then import the elephant egg into an elephant. A real challenge will be to generate a truly extinct species such as a Tasmanian wolf for which no host cells exist.
What does this mean? We don't know yet, and we may not know for years. For now, all we can do is speculate responsibly. As Freeman Dyson notes:
"I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet."
Life goes on.. but it won't be the same.
To provide context, we have put together a retrospective of Edge events, transcripts, and videos featuring the pioneers in this area who are among the key players in what we are calling "A New Age of Wonder" [click here]
The Edge Reality Club discussion on the paper, "Creation Of A Bacterial Cell Controlled By A Chemically Synthesized Genome," is below.
Reality Club: Rodney Brooks, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, George Church, Nassim N. Taleb, Daniel C. Dennett, Dimitar Sasselov, Antony Hegarty, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly, Freeman Dyson