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

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Synthetic By Design, Chaotic by Nature

Last Sunday's New York Pravda carried a pitch for investors concealed as an Op-Ed:

...Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., hope to take a giant stride in synthetic biology by creating a piece of DNA 580,076 units in length from simple chemicals, chiefly the material that constitutes DNA’s four-letter chemical alphabet. This molecule would be an exact copy of the genome of a small bacterium. Dr. Venter says he then plans to insert it into a bacterial cell. If this man-made genome can take over the cell’s functions, Dr. Venter should be able to claim he has made the first synthetic cell.

Such an achievement could suggest some new plateau has been reached in human control of life and evolution. But Dr. Venter’s synthetic genome will probably be seen to represent a feat of copying evolution’s genetic programming, not of creating new life itself.

Synthetic biologists, as they survey all the new genes and control elements whose DNA sequences are now accumulating in data bases, seem to feel extraordinary power is almost within their grasp.

“Biology will never be the same,” Thomas F. Knight of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory wrote recently in describing the new engineering discipline he sees as emerging from it.

Adherents of the new discipline held their third annual conference last month in Zurich but their creations are still at the toy rocket stage. A dish of bacteria that generates a bull’s eye pattern in response to the chemicals in its environment. A network of genes that synthesizes the precursor chemical to artemisin, an anti-malaria drug. “The understanding of networks and pathways is really in its infancy and will be a challenge for decades,” says James J. Collins, a biomedical engineer at Boston University.

That hasn’t stopped synthetic biologists from dreaming. “Grow a house” is on the to-do list of the M.I.T. Synthetic Biology Working Group, presumably meaning that an acorn might be reprogrammed to generate walls, oak floors and a roof instead of the usual trunk and branches. “Take over Mars. And then Venus. And then Earth” —the last items on this modest agenda.

Most people in synthetic biology are engineers who have invaded genetics. They have brought with them a vocabulary derived from circuit design and software development that they seek to impose on the softer substance of biology. They talk of modules — meaning networks of genes assembled to perform some standard function — and of “booting up” a cell with new DNA-based instructions, much the way someone gets a computer going.

The first practical applications of synthetic biology may not be so far off. “The real killer app for this field has become bioenergy,” Dr. Collins says. Under the stimulus of high gas prices, synthetic biologists are re-engineering microbes to generate the components of natural gas and petroleum. Whether this can be done economically remains to be seen. But one company, LS9 of San Carlos, Calif., says it is close to that goal. Its re-engineered microbe “produces hydrocarbons that look, smell and function” very similarly to those in petroleum, said Stephen del Cardayre, the company’s vice president for research...

A great idea, that, but one that doesn't require making "new" cells from scratch. As I've written here before, the organisms already exist in nature.

Is this a pitch for investors, or an attempt to wake up the oil boys? But anyone who's seen Blade Runner and knows the mind of commercial science should know that making something as useful and mundane as gasoline from garbage is probably the dead last item on the list that any benefactor investor with deep pockets would promote.

The first item will be molecular and cellular barcodes to identify every piece of DNA or cellular product as proprietary.

The next item will be to engineer controls that keep it from reproducing under conditions that don't generate shareholder funds. Don't worry, the velociraptors or their equivalent will figure a workaround for that. Probably shortly after the Marines deploy them in the Middle East.

Planned obsolescence will likely also be genetically programmed. After all, we can't have things working too well for too long.

Oh yeah. And the final moneymaker?

I'll let you figure that one, but it will doubtless give a whole new dimension to the concept of labor.

No comments: