And Man Created Life

The first organism created from a totally artificial and constructed genome - the first creature since the beginning of creatures with no ancestor to put it in perspective, was unceremoniously announced in the pages of Science on the 20th of May.

Sure, analogies to Frankenstein’s creation will abound (particularly since they had to use the “dead” body of another organism to get the DNA to do its stuff), but the fact is this is probably one of the quietest, most monumental breakthroughs in the history of science. Humanity has paved the way for the creation of designer life.

It demonstrates a mastery over nature much more profound than the mastery of the atom, and one as fraught with the capability for both good and evil.

I think the writer for the Economist put it better than I ever would have thought possible (if a wee bit dramatically):

It demonstrates more forcefully than anything else to date that life’s essence is information. Heretofore that information has been passed from one living thing to another. Now it does not have to be. Non-living matter can be brought to life with no need for lightning, a vital essence or a god. And this new power will allow the large-scale manipulation of living organisms. Hitherto, genetic modification has been the work of apprentices and journeymen. This new step is, in the true and original sense of the word, a masterpiece. It is the demonstration that the practitioner has mastered his art.

While admittedly, this step has been a long time coming and gene manipulation is a common occurrence, this crossed threshold represents something more substantive and elaborate; like the step from using radioactive isotopes to being able to build a sustaining reactor or the Bomb.

Let’s hope we use our newfound power well.

Great coverage from the Economist here and here as well as the original article for those scientifically able to survive the abstract here.

Oh, and is it just me, or is just a bit freaky to DNA tattoo/cattle brand your creation? Kinda Blade Runner-esque considering the achievement, Dr. Venter inserted a watermark into the creature in order to clearly pass on the information it was his :

The watermark, Dr Venter says, includes a cipher which contains the URL of a website and three quotations, if you can work out how to decode it. The plaintext part of the watermark brands the bug as Dr Venter’s own, encoding its serial number as JCVI-syn1.0.

Me, I’m off to learn a little bit more about bioinformatics and genomics.