Thursday, January 24, 2008

Almost Alive


Dr. Craig Venter does not simply push the envelope of biology: he recreates it. His research group, The Institute for Genetic Research ("TIGR"), was first to sequence an entire genome, that of Haemophilus influenzae (the infectious eubacterium that causes influenza). Venter created a company, Celera, whose mission was to best the Human Genome Project - the combined research efforts of hundreds of biologists, in dozens of countries, working for decades, and backed by billions of governmental dollars - by being the first to sequence a complete human genome. By many accounts, Venter won the race to a first draft of the human genome. He has since published his own complete diploid genome. Now, when not busy discovering myriad new taxa of microorganisms with every dip of his bucket into the world's oceans, aboard the Sorcerer II, Venter is attempting to create a living organism from scratch. Last year, his researchers transformed Mycoplasma capricolum into another taxon, Mycoplasma mycoides, by swapping genomes. Now, Venter and company have announced their synthesis of an entire genome - that of Mycoplasma genitalium - of more than half a million nucleotide base-pairs in size. The next step will be to turn this genome "on", thus creating from chemical spare parts what some might call "life".

Theoretical discussion of synthetic life is all the rage in biology these days. As he has done so often before, Craig Venter is busy making theory reality. Doubtless some environmental groups will push to have brand new genetically original organisms ("GOOs"?) regulated (or banned), some religious groups will fret about Venter trying to play God, and patent scholars will debate whether synthetic genes, genomes, and organisms should be considered more or less patentable. Meanwhile, the regular drumbeat of startling announcements from Venter's latest research vehicle, the J. Craig Venter Institute ("JCVI"), will likely continue to challenge and wrong-foot governments, regulators, and worried citizens, while feeding the imaginations of everyone who ponders what exactly life is, and whether or not it transcends the biochemical machine Venter seems determined to create.

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