Scientist Craig Venter Has Created Artificial Life


Scientist Craig Venter Has Created Artificial Life
Jason Mick (Blog) – October 26, 2009 9:48 AM



J. Craig Venter, a leading biochemistry and microbiology research has become the first to create artificial life. E  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The DNA for the new organism was cloned in yeast. The membrane was produced by a similar cell. The result is a viable, artificially created organism.  (Source: Science)

Man can indeed create life, vitalism arguments laid to rest

Throughout the centuries vitalism remained the dominant philosophy.  Many reasoned that there was something inherently unique to life, impossible to recreate.  Modern science, however, has shown that the makeup of a living organism is nothing more than a complex mix of biochemicals.

Now a major scientific breakthrough has been made that may have profound impact on scientific research, and even how we view life itself.  John Craig Venter, founder of the The Institute for Genomic Research and the J. Craig Venter Institute, has, at last, achieved what he has been trying to do for over a decade — create artificial life.

The most basic definition of being alive, when it comes to bacteria is being able to sustain the biological process to survive and reproduce.  Neither is possible without DNA, the genetic material of living organisms.

Professor Venter began by trying to clone DNA from a bacterial species, with the hopes of eventually transplanting it into a receptive bacterial membrane and creating a viable cell.  He started with trying to use E. Coli bacteria to clone incorporated DNA from Mycoplasma mycoides subspecies capri, a tiny bacteria.  The E. Coli proved to not have the perfect cloning machinery, only able to replicate stretches of DNA up to a quarter of M. mycoides‘ total genome.

So Professor Venter turned to the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae — interestingly, a eukaryote (M. mycoides is a eubacteria) — to carry out the cloning.  Using the yeast, complete 1.1-Megabase M. mycoides genomes were cloned and harvested.

The next challenge was implanting the harvested genome into a receptive bacterial membrane.  As bacteria lack organelles, in a traditional sense, this membrane primarily served as protection and to provide the appropriate biochemical environment.  It also offered specialized membrane environments needed for certain reactions, like respiration.

Preparing receptor organelles — from M. mycoides and a similar species, Mycoplasma
subspecies capricolum — a new roadblock was encountered.  Enzymes preexisting in the membrane would destroy the unmethylated DNA, cloned in the yeast.  Fortunately, the solution to this problem was relatively simple, albeit intensive — Venter’s team used methylating enzymes from M. mycoides to protect the clone DNA harvested from the yeast.

Using this technique, or other methylation techniques, Craig Venter’s team succeeded in creating viable organisms.  In the case of the M. capricolum implant, the results were exceptionally notable, as it demonstrates that an artificially created organism can be generated using the shell (membrane bound cell) of an appropriate similar organism.

The groundbreaking success was reported in the September edition of the journal Science, with Carole Lartigue, S. Vashee, and M. Algire listed as the first three authors (J. Venter was later listed). Surprisingly, this potentially Nobel-worthy achievement has drawn relatively little press in the last month.

Thus, at long last, man has succeeded in a long standing dream — the creation of artificial life.  It has been done using the efficient molecular tools that nature has evolved (enzymes).  Using these tools in vivo to create target vesicles and cloned DNA, a new era of bioengineered artificial organisms is launched.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Professor Venter continues to work on developing methods of in vivo and in vitro DNA replication and assembly.  His team also continues to explore creating more artificial organisms and modified artificial organisms.  Venter’s organization holds, or has filed for, patents on many of the techniques he has used to create the artificial life.

With these tools incredible achievements may one day be possible.  We may be able to take individual genes and tailor-make bacteria as a starting point for induced evolution to produce the perfect fermenter for biofuels, or the perfect cleaner to break down or isolate oil or other toxins from the environment.  In short, it’s a brave new world now that the ability to biochemically create new life is in the hands of man.

Update: Monday Oct. 26, 2009 2:40 p.m.:
There has been some question over what exactly comprises “artificial life”.  In this case the researchers have created an organism with new genes inserted, and are claiming the organism to be a new artificial species (which notably they are trying to patent).  The grounds for calling the organism synthetic or artificial is that it was produced from non-living material, in this case a cloned genome which was non-living when removed from the yeast cell that produced it (i.e. it would be nonviable if not carefully prepped and implanted by the researchers).  This genome was created in vivo with enzymes that could, in theory, also be used in vitro.  Some, however, define synthetic/artificial life as being artificial intelligence, non-carbon based life, or life resulting from non-enzymatic production reactions.  This discovery does not meet these criteria.  Thus while the discovery can be billed as “artificial or “synthetic” life, it is important not to take it out of context.

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