The creation of 'Synthia' - Synthetic life

23 May 2010

Interview with

Victoria Gill, BBC Science Correspondent; Dr Craig Venter, J Craig Venter Institute

Chris -   This week the J Craig Venter Institute announced the creation to huge fanfare of a brand new synthetic microorganism dubbed, "Synthia."  This has prompted lots of excitement but also lots of controversy.  Some people have argued that Synthia isn't entirely synthetic.  So to tell us more here's Craig Venter and Victoria Gill.

Craig -   Their generic heritage is the computer, so it is absolutely the first synthetic life form.  A cell, driven, controlled totally by synthetic DNA.  So, we call it synthetic because everything in the cell has been made and dictated by that synthetic chromosome even though we do start with another living species, we use that to initially read the genetic code and until it can transform itself into the species controlled and dictated by that synthetic chromosome.DNA

Victoria -   That's Dr. Craig Venter from the eponymous J. Craig Venter Institute, talking about his research team's new synthetic cells.  But are they really synthetic cells?  Is this synthetic life?  Well strictly speaking, it's just the genome that's synthetic.  What they've done is taken a copy of an existing bacterial genome, looked at all the DNA inside a simple bacterial cell, decoded that on a computer and then they've taken that and used the information to chemically construct a new genome, synthesising a genome in the lab from scratch.  It's an impressive technological step but many biologists say that it's overstating the development to call it synthetic life.  But their new cell does live.  It's replicated now over a billion times.  So why are scientists doing this?  Well, Dr. Venter says the endeavour began as an effort to understand life on the most intimate level.  What he has developed now, he says, are the tools to design new organisms which could mark a new era of biotechnology.

Craig -   I think they're going to potentially create a new industrial revolution if we can really get cells to do the production we want, if they could help wean us off off oil, and reverse some of the damage to the environment like capturing back carbon dioxide.  I synthiawould be pretty satisfied with that outcome alone.  We think some of the earliest applications people will see are new vaccines.  We can make, in a day, new flu vaccines that have taken much longer to produce by conventional methods and we're working with the National Institute of Health and Novartis to build the process for very rapidly as new infections emerge to synthetically in 24 hours or less, make those vaccine candidates and get them into testing.

Victoria -   But these claims too have sparked criticism, not just by scientists who feel the potential of this technology has been overstated but by the wider community.  Julian Savulescu an ethics professor from the University of Oxford has said that the potential of this science is - although very far in the future - very real and significant, dealing with pollution and creating the new energy sources that Dr. Venter himself is so enthusiastic about.  But as he pointed out, the risks are also unparalleled and this is a very rapidly moving and new field.  It seems that the regulatory and safety discussions haven't really kept pace.  This technology could be used in the future to make some very powerful bio-weapons.  That's a very extreme example, but the potential is there.  It's less than 15 years since Dr. Venter first announced that he wanted to create a synthetic organism and we're already at this stage.  What concerns many people now is that the pace of this exciting new field of biology should not overtake those ethical and safety discussions.  As Professor Savulescu puts it, "The challenge now is to eat the fruit without the worm."

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