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June 14, 2011 | By:  Eric Sawyer
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Synthetic Biology in the Spotlight

CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday featured the well-known biologist J. Craig Venter. Venter gained fame—and notoriety—when he challenged the government human genome project by leading a privately funded competitor project. His project was completed in a much shorter length of time than the public project and at a fraction of the cost, though he did admittedly have access to data already generated by the public project. His approach was to use shotgun sequencing, where many copies of the genome are randomly split into pieces, sequenced individually, and then reassembled using a supercomputer. This method has now become standard practice.

The 60 Minutes special summarized Venter's accomplishments and probed his life history. I have provided the link in my references below; the 13-minute segment is well worth your attention. (Thus I will proceed assuming you have viewed the clip). At the beginning the interviewer states that we are now in an age where life can be created in the laboratory (and not merely passively studied). The accomplishment to which he is referring was announced by Gibson et al. (2010). Venter's team used chunks of synthetic DNA built by a machine that, when assembled together, form the Mycoplasma mycoides genome. They transplanted this synthetic genome into a host cell also belonging to the genus Mycoplasma, but of a different species, whose native genome had been removed. This individual represented, presumably, the second parentless cell in the history of terrestrial life. (Though, in reality, the experiment used many cells at once and, also, our understanding of the origin of life is not this cut and dry). I anticipate giving this groundbreaking experiment a more thorough treatment in a future post. After all it is, I think, the most significant advance in synthetic biology in recent years.

One certainly couldn't say that Venter hasn't earned his fame. He is a pioneer in both reading and writing genomes. To me it is generally interesting to see scientists outside their labs and to hear about their lives and past experiences. I was surprised to hear that Venter had been such a slacker in his early years! It just goes to show that people get their motivation from a variety of sources, in Venter's case a rude awakening in the way of being drafted into war and taken away from his surfer lifestyle. Also in the interview, Venter challenges the system by which federal research dollars are allocated. He criticizes it for neglecting investment in uncertain areas in favor of sure things. I won't pretend to have the background needed to adequately judge this assertion, but I don't doubt that it's true or a significant problem.

Before I end this post, I would like to draw attention to a very important issue affecting synthetic biology in particular, but also science generally. The 60 Minutes interviewer seemed to me obviously uncomfortable with the underlying science in the way he spoke about the subject. Perhaps, though, this is in fact an attempt to cater to the perceived audience. However, one can't help noticing that the segment's subtitle is "Designing Life." What exactly did Venter design? By my own observations, the media's portrayal of Venter's Mycoplasma project has confused the terms "synthetic" and "novel" in a significant way. The genome that Venter synthesized ("synthetic") was not "novel"—it already exists in nature! It's hard to blame someone who has the wrong idea about this discovery—or synthetic biology generally—given how misleading its coverage has been. I fear that such misrepresentations hurt the image of synthetic biology. I doubt that had the discovery been portrayed more accurately a presidential ethics investigation would have been initiated. I also doubt that the story would have generated the same response from critics.

In a society that is, by Venter's own account, "100% dependent on science," it is absolutely crucial that the members of the general public have a basic understanding of science. People have to understand how science itself operates and how to think critically. A basic technical knowledge is also important, but it is even more important to continue studying science after your schooling is over. An elderly person today who has not studied science since high school has, regrettably, a very impoverished framework for understanding the science of today. And it's the science of today that is the most exciting! The pace of discovery is breathtaking, and our view of the world is constantly being challenged by the relentless will of scientific progress.

Image Credit: Calliopejen (via Wikimedia). Originally from Gross, L. A New Human Genome Sequence Paves the Way for Individualized Genomics. PLoS Biol 5(10), e266 (2007).

References and Further Reading:

CBS. 60 Minutes: J. Craig Venter: Designing Life (2011).

Gibson, D. G. et al. Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome. Science 329, 52–56 (2010).

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