Friday, May 21, 2010

Synthetic life

This is big: A scientist has created a cell with an entirely synthetic genome, effectively creating synthetic life:

The researchers constructed a bacterium's "genetic software" and transplanted it into a host cell.

The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species "dictated" by the synthetic DNA.

What this means is that we can now design genomes in the lab, run them off on a synthesiser, insert them into a host cell, and culture a bacteria which does whatever we want. Though at the moment, we're still in the copy-and-paste stage, rather than designing genes from scratch, so we are limited to enzymes that already exist. Still, the industrial potential is massive. For example, we could make bacteria that were hyperefficient at eating oil to clean up spills like Deepwater Horizon (though there are obvious dangers with using such bacteria in the wild). Or just use bacterial cultures to crank out fuel and pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, it also means that biological warfare is no longer a matter of physical security of weaponised cultures; if the genome of a potential biowarefare agent has been sequenced and published (and many have, as part of ordinary medical research into those bugs), then it can be run up in the lab, inserted into a host, cultured, and hey presto! Instant bioWMD! But that's a threat we are going to have to learn to live with. The knowledge now exists. The genie is now out of the bottle. And with a free market in legal jurisdiction, it cannot be put back in.