Just another Reality-based bubble in the foam of the multiverse.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Liberation Biology

What your oil company really hates about 21st century biology.

Scientists at the institute directed by J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in sequencing the human genome, are reporting that they have successfully transplanted the genome of one species of bacteria into another, an achievement they see as a major step toward creating synthetic forms of life...

His goal is to make cells that might take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and produce methane, used as a feedstock for other fuels. Such an achievement might reduce dependency on fossil fuels and strike a blow at global warming...

As you all know (all of you that know me anyway), I'm just a simple biomedical research faculty at the University of Michigan given to whims and vapors and ideas that keep me employed but often upset the tenured faculty around me. This idea of Venter's is something I've been advocating ever since the Enron-Cheneyburton presidency stole the $election in 2000. The basic ideas are here, here, and here.

So this is a good thing. You can not run worldwide economies and take care of billions of people, much less move into the greater multiverse, without an economically viable source of renewable energy. Without destroying the forests.

Back to Venter:

...Biologists have long been able to move useful genes into bacteria and other organisms in a process called genetic engineering. The idea of synthetic biology is to carry out genetic engineering in a more extensive and systematic way.

Synthetic biologists, who held their third annual meeting in Zurich, Switzerland, this week, hope to create biochemical processes and then choose the gene sequences that will direct these processes and build the DNA from scratch. The scientists’ goal is to select and reorder the genetic machinery developed by evolution just as an engineer might assemble an efficient circuit board from existing components.

Dr. Venter hopes to lay the basis for a new approach to synthetic biology by first synthesizing whole genomes in the laboratory and then making them take control of, or “boot up,” a living cell. His new report accomplishes the second of the two steps, at least in Mycoplasma. His team, which includes a distinguished biologist, Hamilton Smith, purified the full DNA from one kind of Mycoplasma and showed that it could take control of another, making the host cell switch over to producing proteins specified by the inserted DNA. Dr. Smith said he was not sure whether the inserted genome destroyed the host genome or just made the cell divide, assigning the two genomes to different daughter cells.

Booting up cells with new genomes is a major limitation in synthetic biology, Dr. Venter said. With that hurdle now crossed, it will be possible to “design cells in future to manufacture new types of fuel and break our dependency on oil and do something about carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere...”

Dr. Venter is more colorful and less publicity shy than most academic biologists. But he has many solid achievements to his credit. They have so far been in sequencing, or decoding, genomes.

He pioneered methods for sequencing the first bacterium, Haemophilus influenzae, and raced the government to a draw in sequencing a draft version of the human genome in June 2000. Though unable to produce a complete version because he was forced out of Celera, the company he headed, Dr. Venter devised a better method than his government-supported rivals, one that has become the standard way to sequence genomes.

Dr. Venter has always sought academic credit by publishing his results in scientific journals and now directs a nonprofit research laboratory in Rockville, Md., the J. Craig Venter Institute. But he has another foot firmly planted in the commercial world. He has set up, and the Venter Institute largely owns, Synthetic Genomics, whose goal is to make alternative fuels to oil and coal. He has also applied for far-reaching patents on the uses of synthetic life forms.

The report today may be less significant if his research team is unable to repeat the success in more useful organisms than the Mycoplasma bacterium. Dr. Church said a quite similar experiment with Escherichia coli, a standard laboratory organism, was accomplished in 1958 by two French scientists, Fran├žois Jacob and E. L. Wollman...

In truth, the technology has been around awhile. But with someone as visible as Venter espousing the use of biotechnology to overcome the dependency on fossil fuels, one can only hope it's a matter of time.

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