Category Archives: synthetic life

Venter and Synthetic Life

As I’m sure many of you know, Craig Venter and his teamed have succeeded in designing the first example of synthetic life.  At this stage, all they did was copy the DNA sequence from one species of bacteria, take this synthetic chromosome, and get a donor cell from another species to accept it.  Once the synthetic chromosome was inside the donor cell, it took charge and instantly converted one species into another.  Now scientists have a system set up that awaits new software programs.

Yet Venter himself views this scientific advance as having a philosophical implication:

Venter also points to what the cells–powered by genomes made in a lab from four bottles of chemicals, based on instructions stored on a computer–reveal about what life is. “This is as much a philosophical as a technological advance,” he says. “The notion that this is possible means bacterial cells are software-driven biological machines. If you change the software, you build a new machine. I’m still amazed by it.”

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Synthetic Evolution

Earlier I mentioned a paper by Lynn J. Rothschild entitled A powerful toolkit for synthetic biology: Over 3.8 billion years of evolution that recently appeared in the journal BioEssays.  Rothschild’s paper mostly categorizes and explores “evolution’s toolkit as a way to point to potential approaches for synthetic biology.”  As such, the majority of the paper describes mechanisms of evolutionary change as potential methods that might be coopted by synthetic engineers.

The combination of evolutionary with engineering principles will enhance synthetic biology. Conversely, synthetic biology has the potential to enrich evolutionary biology by explaining why some adaptive space is empty, on Earth or elsewhere. Synthetic biology, the design and construction of artificial biological systems, substitutes bio-engineering for evolution, which is seen as an obstacle. But because evolution has produced the complexity and diversity of life, it provides a proven toolkit of genetic materials and principles available to synthetic biology.

Yet I am struck by various themes, briefly raised, that seamlessly tie into the possibility that evolution itself has been engineered in some manner.

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In the News

Researchers at Oregon State University have made a fundamental new discovery about how birds breathe and have a lung capacity that allows for flight – and the finding means it’s unlikely that birds descended from any known theropod dinosaurs. HERE

Harvard scientists have cleared a key hurdle in the creation of synthetic life, assembling a cell’s critical protein-making machinery in an advance with both practical, industrial applications and that advances the basic understanding of life’s workings.

George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School and member of Harvard’s Origins of Life Initiative, reported the creation of billions of synthetic ribosomes that readily create a long, complex protein called firefly luciferase.HERE

(HT: chunkdz)

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Church in the Matrix

George Church is from the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. He makes a couple of very interesting comments that show subtle, but very striking, parallels with The Design Matrix. Let me post a few examples :

Church says:

In terms of past and future, what have we learned from the past, how does that help us design the future, what would we like it to do in the future, how do we know what we should be doing? (emphasis added)


I’m a little more interested in the future than the past, but I don’t dismiss it either.

Now, I should also point out that Church is playing a lead role in the development of synthetic life. As such, this is a nice example of a designer who, while engaged in designing life, already has his eye on the future, “how does that help us design the future?”

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Designing Life

I’ve been too busy to post, so let me share this lecture by Craig Venter with you. Venter talks about a real example of design interfacing with biology – the attempt to design synthetic life. The lecture makes some interesting points. Halfway through, Venter expresses certainty that life can exist in outer space. He then talks about lateral gene transfer playing a huge role in evolution. And it is also interesting to watch him seamlessly knit human design and biology together – our ability to design is largely dependent on the fact that biology is not only so accessible to design, but it facilitates our efforts.