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Masters of Synthetic Life

Synthetic Life

A fleeting image of a slide at Craig Venter’s 2008 TED presentation on synthetic life captures synthetic genomics in a nutshell. The slide shows Synthetic Organism Designer 1.0, a piece of software akin to Will Wright’s Spore Creature Creator. Venter’s software, however, does not create fantastic imaginary creatures. When finished, it will create the real deal –- replacing all or part of an organism’s natural DNA with synthetic DNA designed by humans. Here’s a video of Dr. Venter’s TED presentation:

Venter along with Harvard geneticist George Church – both credited with helping to decode the human genome – recently participated in a Master Class before a small group of scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, and writers at West Hollywood, Calif. The event, “A Short Course on Synthetic Genomics,” was organized by John Brockman, a literary agent who publishes the website The Edge, a forum dedicated to scientists.

In a series of lectures, Venter and Church conveyed how the world is being changed by the ability to read genetic sequences into computing systems and then store, replicate, alter and insert them back into living cells. "We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer," George Church announced.

These pioneering scientists and bioengineers are very close to creating new organisms based on the same techniques that other engineers use to design computer chips, bridges, and skyscrapers. Mathematical modeling is driving the design of useful, artificial organisms, instead of the blind, trial-and-error methods of natural selection. "DNA is excellent programmable matter," says Church. Church’s research focuses on genomic and proteomic (proteins expressed by a genome) measurement, as well as the synthesis and modeling of biomedical and ecological systems — in particular, personal genomics and biofuels.

DNA strandsTo pursue the development alternative fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen, entrepreneur Venter founded the private company Synthetic Genomics to design, synthesize, and assemble synthetic microorganisms.

Both Venter and Church are building on the foundation of DNA sequencing, trying to drive down the cost of decoding individual genomes and –- even more radically –- using computers to design new organisms. As reported in Newsweek, Venter and Church direct or influence a major portion of work in both sequencing and synthetic biology, including three different commercial efforts to develop bacteria that could produce the next generation of biofuels.

A challenge of synthetic genomics is to prune genomes to the minimal set of genes needed to support life. Venter calls this "reductionist biology." During the Master Class, he raised the fundamental question of whether it would be possible to reconstruct life by putting together a collection of its smallest components. Their work gets at the essence of living things in ways that may give humans control over the very process that created life. This isn’t "playing God," Church claims. “You’re certainly not creating a universe.”

The Master Class included the following topics:

  • What is Life
  • Origins of Life
  • in vitro Synthetic Life
  • Mirror-life
  • Metabolic Engineering for Hydrocarbons & Pharmaceuticals
  • Computational Tools
  • Electronic-Biological Interfaces
  • Nanotech Molecular Manufacturing
  • Biosensors
  • Accelerated Lab Evolution
  • Engineered Personal Stem Cells
  • Multi-Virus-Resistant Cells
  • Humanized Mice
  • Bringing Back Extinct Species
  • Safety/Security Policy

This isn’t "playing God," Church claims. “You’re certainly not creating a universe.”

The entire Master Class is available in high quality HD from The Edge web site.

What is a “humanized” mouse you might ask? No, these are not small mammals with human faces that recite Shakespeare. They are mice with genomes injected with bits of human DNA for the purpose of producing test animals with disease-fighting antibodies. A personal humanized mouse, with its genome modified with your own genetic material, could produce antibodies that would not be rejected by your own body.

BacteriaOther applications of synthetic genomics are numerous –- as diverse as the topics covered at the Master Class. One example presented by Dr. Church is the construction of bacterial cells that are naturally attracted to cancerous tumors. By slightly altering their genomes, it’s possible to make a species of cancer-killing bacteria. These organisms can attack a tumor by invading its cancerous cells, and then synthesizing and releasing cancer-killing toxins while still inside them. Another example, sounding more like science fiction than science fact, was presented by Elon Musk. Musk spoke about bioengineering the human species to travel to the planets.

Human beings, Dr. Church noted, are limited by a variety of things. This includes our ability to concentrate and remember, the shortness of our lifespans, and so on. Genomic engineering can be used to correct these deficiencies – and more.

The dangers of generating synthetic life include "biohackers" creating new infectious agents and genomically engineered bacteria escaping from the lab to wreak havoc. A possible defense against the latter, Venter says, is to require engineered organisms to have "suicide genes" that prevent them from surviving outside the lab.

As reported in the New York Times, the rate at which this technology is now improving “puts silicon to shame.” Dr. Church noted that between 1970 and 2005 gene sequencing had taken place on a Moore’s Law pace, improving at about 1.5 times per year. Since then it has improved at the rate of an order of magnitude, or ten times annually.

in vitroThe cost of sequencing the human genome has dropped from $3 billion to $5,000 and continues to fall according to Stanford University’s Dr. Steven Quake. Currently, seventeen companies and one “open source” project are attempting to further push down the cost by improving the technology and speeding up the pace of sequencing.

In June 2009, a "Consumer Genetics" exhibition was held in Boston for the first time. Ari Kiirikki, the Vice President of Knome –- a recognized pioneer in the personal genomics field –- predicts that the cost of sequencing a genome in the next ten years will fall to less than $1,000. To support this goal, the X-Prize Foundation has put up a prize of ten million dollars for the sequencing of 100 full genomes within ten days for the cost of less than $10,000 dollars per genome sequenced.

Synthetic Life is leaving Moore’s Law in the dust –- and if we are to believe the predictions of Kurzweil, Joy, and others –- it likely will precede the coming Neuro and Nano revolutions. At this pace of development, expect to download Synthetic Organism Designer 1.0 sometime soon.

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