The newest bacterium: Part 1

30 Jun

During my blog-writing hiatus, some interesting science has made the news, science that not only affects my field in particular, but the world at large.  The buzz about the creation of a “synthetic cell” has received a great deal of attention and stirred a lot of questions.  I’ve had my own questions about it and have formed a few opinions about the way the authors as well as the media in general has handled the issue.  I therefore will begin my blog anew with a few posts on the newest advance to come from Craig Venter’s research group.

What I’m interested in for the sake of discussion here is specifically:

1.) The research article from whence the hubbub began (how’d they do it?);

2.) How it fits into the field of environmental microbiology (and microbial ecology)

Science or semantics?

So, in an attempt to simply understand what this was really all about, I began by delving into the original research article in Science which came out on their Sciencexpress website on the 20th of May 2010, entitled “Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome.” 

First off, what struck me was that the title of the article distinguishes the actual, peer-reviewed scientific work from the terms the popular media and news press were using… “synthetic cell” or even “synthetic life”.  This undoubtedly originated from Dr. Craig Venter himself in several (non-peer-reviewed) interviews in which he stated, “We call it the first synthetic cell…” and this is the terminology used on the J. Craig Venter Institute  (JCVI) homepage.  However, I feel this is misleading and that a little clarification might be in order. 

The original cell itself was, in fact, not synthetic, in the most basic sense of the term.  It was a organic, all-natural (not man-made) bacterium growing on a Petri dish in the lab, an organism by the name of Mycoplasma capricolum, which causes respiratory diseases, mastitis and severe arthritis (in goats). 

The scientists did not manufacture the lipids, proteins, and other components of this life form, nor did they create it “from scratch” or “from four bottles of chemicals” as the popular media might have you believe.  Venter and his cohorts synthesized genetic material similar to another closely related organism and inserted into an already living M. capricolum cell.   Once this genetic material was inserted into a living cell, the cell then made copies of that synthetic genome, grew, and divided into new cells directed by the man-made synthetic genetic code.

A true scientific feat, no doubt, but not exactly the way it’s been spun.    

You might consider this experiment something like  a brain transplant in a human (bacterial nucleoid = human brain).  The scientists didn’t create the body, the lungs, liver, heart, skin, spleen or any other organs of this living thing; they simply created a new brain, built to spec off a very closely-related person’s real, live brain, and put it into a body from which they had removed the previous brain.  A truly amazing and admirable scientific advance, but they didn’t create a synthetic human being from chemicals in the lab (on a dark and stormy night with a timely strike of lightning).

Of all the articles and interviews I’ve seen, I actually thought Nicholas Wade  used more accurate terminology and gave this advance a more realistic billing than most others in his article in the NYT.  One subject the NYT article brought up is the fact that the bacterium used in these experiments is not actually suitable for most other biotechnology applications.  So, what is a Mycoplasma and why use it in this type of research? 

In future posts, I address this question and begin to look at the more technical aspects of the research itself.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Gibson, D.G. et al. (2010) Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome.  Science, 329 (5987): 52-56.  DOI: 10.1126/science.1190719

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3 Responses to “The newest bacterium: Part 1”

  1. Karthik.K.N July 19, 2010 at 12:25 am #

    Hello,

    I liked your comments on the topic. If ou are intersted in stuffs like these, try the above blog. Its interesting..!!

    Cheers,
    Karthik.K.N

  2. click August 5, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

    Wow, marvelous blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?
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