Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

It’s Life, But Not As We Know It

By Simon Grose

The creation of the first synthetic genome is the latest paragraph in the story of evolution.

The evolution of life on Earth is a fantastic story shaped by a multitude of random forces, from occasional massive meteor impacts to countless miniscule mutations. Craig Venter and his team at Synthetic Genomics are not the first non-random force to attempt to shape this story, but definitely the most ambitious.

Their success in creating a synthetic copy of the genome of a bacterium and implanting it into a different bacterium, which then multiplied to produce proteins typically generated by the copied bacterium, was driven by obsessive intent. Over 5 years the project has cost upwards of US$30 million and yielded at least 13 patent applications. Nothing random about that.

Some of the money came from Exxon Mobil. They see synthetic biology as a potential pathway to create artificial strains of algae that are optimised to ingest carbon dioxide and provide feedstock for biofuels.

To see this “artificial life” in context, compare it to a project that has won around $600,000 from the Indo-Australian Biotechnology Fund. Researchers from Monash University and the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai will collaborate to compare gene expression maps of four strains of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae. The aim is to identify genes that control carbon absorption, with the ultimate goal of loading those genes into existing strains to optimise their performance as biofuel feedstock.

The intent behind both projects is identical, as is their commitment to manipulate genomes to create bacterial strains that have not evolved naturally.

When Venter’s research was published in Science, Julian Savulescu, an Australian who holds the Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, said it was “going towards the role of a god”. No such comments were heard when the funding for the Monash/Mumbai project was announced in May. Indeed nobody noticed, while Venter’s work provoked huge worldwide coverage and debate.

That should be no surprise. Dolly the cloned sheep and her creators were global media superstars when her story was released in 1997. Since then we have got so used to animal cloning that the media don’t notice anymore. So it will be for synthetic genomes in the years ahead.

Dolly and the new synthetic bacterium are paragraphs in a new chapter of the fantastic evolution story in which humans are becoming active players in the creation of new life forms. A companion chapter about humans becoming active players in the destruction of life forms is also being written. The ethics of what we are doing is an essential part of both chapters.

But DNA doesn’t do ethics; it just takes any opportunity it can to propagate itself. Craig Venter is its latest accomplice.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (