Venter in the Guardian

The front page of yesterday’s edition of the UK newspaper the Guardian was, unusually, dominated by a science story: I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer. The occasion for the headline was an interview with Craig Venter, who fed them a pre-announcement that they had successfully managed to transplant a wholly synthetic genome into a stripped down bacterium, replacing its natural genetic code by an artificial one. In the newspaper’s somewhat breathless words: “The Guardian can reveal that a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Mr Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already constructed a synthetic chromosome, a feat of virtuoso bio-engineering never previously achieved. Using lab-made chemicals, they have painstakingly stitched together a chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code.”

We’ll see what, in detail, has been achieved when the work is properly published. It’s significant, though, that this story was felt to be important enough to occupy most of the front page of a major UK newspaper at a time of some local political drama. Craig Venter is visiting the UK later this month, so we can expect the current mood of excitement or foreboding around synthetic biology to continue for a while yet.

8 thoughts on “Venter in the Guardian”

  1. Craig Venter has been making this statement, sounding more like a challenge, for some time. If he can produce what he says he intends to produce, prove his results and have them vetted without turning the project into a media circus, and deliver a credible discover to the community – He will have done a great service.

    If, however, he turns the whole gig into a gong show, gets tail gated by anyone wanting to live vicariously in the momentary brilliance of his passing, he will serve no one well, just make a lot of noise.

    It is for the rest of us, I suggest, taking the steady, studied steps along the this revolutionary path to step back, impose the Three Rules of Assessment** and stand ready to congratulate him on a job well done, or clean up the mess he may leave behind

    **The Three Rules of Assessment

    1 – Look for what is there that shouldn’t be –

    2 – Look For what isn’t there that should be –

    3 – Leave your Ego/Agenda on a peg at the door before oyu walk through it.

  2. Richard – Rule Three is always hard for Bipedal Humanoids, but I instill the virtue if its strict application out here at Camp One. As with all emerging fields, there is a lot of vapourware out there and we have to sift through it all.
    Situations such as this serve to test our diligence and in the end we will all get it right. What worries me is the disservice brought to the field and with my precedent interest that development remain for public benefit. Hopefully those in a position to assist in this progress will see through the bright lights in the fog and to the reality behind it.

  3. Some thoughts that have relevance to nanocoatings in the decades ahead…
    Designer pandemic threats scale in concert to the # of genomic degrees granted, a necessary evil that accompanies biomedical R+D. In the decades ahead (2025?), biosensors and quarantine/detection procedures (such as WHO’s Rapid Response Force) must keep pace. Eventually nanocoating (or encapsulating layers bigger than nanoscale) vector delivery methods will render sensors useless in the initial vector deployment (terrorist) stage of a potential pandemic. Before nanocoating delivery methods become viable (2030?), extreme social isolation civil defense measures must be *mature*. If the vectors nanocoating is latent enough, and the vector lethal enough, a majority of the world’s population could be wiped out practically simultaneously. Thankfully nanocoatings are artificial constructs, so advanced air-filters/sensors should be able to sniff out suspicious nanoparticles that shed or decay in a time-elapsed manner, analogous to radioactivity.
    In the decades ahead scientists will need to invent better biosensors and air filters, and develop a mature nanoparticle knowledge base. Governments and private industry will need to fund this. The WHO and airports must also be funded. I suppose Baxter, Medonyx, Sprixx and other companies will come up with better surgical masks and sanitation products too.

  4. Phillip, all that is probably true, but there are probably more obvious things to do as well. I was at a discussion with Venter at the Royal Society yesterday, and he made the obvious but to me entirely reasonable point that if one was worried about new pandemics from new pathogens produced by synthetic genomics, one should take steps to put much more money into research to produce new antibiotics and antiviral drugs. These are areas already relatively neglected by the big drug companies, and there would be many other benefits of doing this in combatting the growth of drug-resistant pathogens and the infectious diseases still prevalent in the developing world.

  5. I agree. Was watching CBC a while back and a town in Alberta Canada launched a fundraising drive to raise 1/3 of the $800 000 needed to begin testing a cancer-killing drug/chemical called dichloroacetate. Its patent had expired and no sufficient profit-margin exists for a pharma-company to begin the lengthy trials process:

    There are probably a whole bunch of generic patent-expired drugs that are ripe to be funded by a public health trust fund, or perhaps repatented somehow, were public health agencies facing aging populations to capitalize on the market imperfection.
    Things could be worse though…in the USA you have a party and president in power who veto public healthcare for poor children and whose leading Republican presidential candidates joke about deporting politicians who recognize market imperfections to France.
    I’m not sure if the best vehicle for the above idea is a new public agency or a charitable trust. Canada does not have a European level of environment policy maturity so I won’t be learning about generic drugs anytime soon 🙁 (I’m not that important but all the university graduates who see the same line of reasoning are)

  6. The concept of synthetic biology is still developing. This has been interpreted as the creation of a cell with a minimal genome literally with all the ‘non-vital’ genes removed or of the transplantation of the inner cellular machinery of one cell into another cell. Although this is an incredibly interesting and powerful area of research the construction of “a machine with mysterious components can only create a mysterious machine”.

    Therefore the claims of synthetic life are at best a distraction and at worst it will ensure that progress working towards understanding the self assembly processes required for the emergence of life will be ignored. We have been working on artifical cells for a year or so with one particular idea of producing totally abiotic cellular system. See:

    I think that there are many benefits from Venter’s research but he needs to start being slightly more clear about excactly the gaps left in his research rather than the fanfair. Oh and he is here promoting is book right?

  7. Lee, I agree with you about what synthetic biology ultimately should be. It was noticeable, though, that Venter always talked, not of synthetic biology, but of synthetic genomics, which is certainly more accurate.

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