The television news magazine 60 Minutes recently aired a piece about the creation of the first synthetic cell. The scientist at the head of this research, J. Craig Venter, is also responsible for mapping the human genome. Over the past 15 years, $40 million and his team of researchers have created a self-replicating bacteria with synthetic DNA.
The synthetic cell Mycoplasma mycoides JCV1-syn1.0 bacterium began with the computerized mapping of the genetic code of the M. mycoides bacteria. The scientists then made some modifications to the original genetic sequence, which acts as the genetic ID code that distinguishes this bacteria from its natural counterpart. From there, the actual DNA pieces were created in lab using the four basic chemicals that make up DNA.
These synthetic DNA fragments were assembled inside yeast cells to form a complete DNA chromosome, which was transplanted to a bacterial cell similar to the M. mycoides (M. capricolum). Inside the cytoplasm of the M. capricolum cell, the DNA began the process of self-replication, resulting in the creation of a new, synthetic M. mycoides strain of bacteria.
Synthetic biology is an emerging field that comes with much controversy. Synthetic biologists tout many possible benefits of creating synthetic life forms. On the other hand, this science raises many concerns about the potential of unknown implications from creating synthetic life. Further funds are already being used to develop synthetic segments of every known flu virus for the purpose of rapidly creating new vaccines.
What this all means for the long term is difficult to say. When the human genome was first mapped, researchers thought it would result in the understanding and curing of human diseases. As it turns out, the knowledge gained from this understanding is not having the impact on human disease as was originally thought.
The more informed we are about research like this from the beginning, the more we will be able to make educated decisions about our health.