Scientists want to rewrite DNA from scratch
Today every living organism—every person, plant, animal and microbe—can trace its heritage back to that first cell. Earth's extended family is the only kind of life that we've observed, so far, in the universe.
This pantheon of living organisms is about to get some newcomers—and we're not talking about extraterrestrials. Scientists in the last couple of years have been trying to create novel forms of life from scratch. They've forged chemicals into synthetic DNA, the DNA into genes, genes into genomes, and built the molecular machinery of completely new organisms in the lab—organisms that are nothing like anything nature has produced.
The people who are defying Nature's monopoly on creation are a loose collection of engineers, computer scientists, physicists and chemists who look at life quite differently than traditional biologists do. Harvard professor George Church wants "to do for biology what Intel does for electronics"—namely, making biological parts that can be assembled into organisms, which in turn can perform any imaginable biological activity.
In the past, genetic wizardry has been confined to tinkering and tweaking what nature has already produced—taking a gene from a bacterium, say, and inserting it into the chromosomes of corn or pigs. What we're talking about is producing life that is wholly new—not in any way a genetic descendant of the primordial Mother Cell. The initial members of each newly created breed will have no ancestors at all.
So far, researchers have fabricated individual biological building blocks, but they have yet to create an entirely new synthetic self-replicating organism. "Chemical synthesis of life has been a standing challenge to synthetic organic chemistry," says Venter (with palpable impatience). But SynBio researchers see no reason to wait until whole organisms can be created from scratch. They are happy to stitch together lab-designed biological components, or "biodevices," with parts of natural cells to construct hybrid organisms. The SynBio enterprise is not some ivory-tower exercise but a pragmatic field that could soon produce results. Church, who at 53 is an elder SynBio guru, thinks it could happen as soon as two years from now if funding is ramped up and scientists don't run into major snags.
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Tags: DNA | Science