Synthesizing life

The Scientist web site has gone live with a new look, and as a result they’re making the entire site freely available for a few days. The bad news is that they will snatch this boon back under their subscriber walls in a few days. The good news is that their current cover story happens to be one of my favorite topics: synthetic biology. There is a well-written central survey article (Is This Life?) as well as some satellite pieces written by luminaries in the field. Drew Endy gives a good practical explanation of synthetic biology as a useful engineering tool, while Craig Venter and pals from his eponymous institute give a remarkably brief and lucid statement of the situation. They lead with this: “Synthetic biologists view the genome and the cell’s operating system.” And near the end, they say

One of our initial goals is to build a minimal cell. What is the least number of gene functions for a viable cell, in a defined laboratory environment? The question is of fundamental importance because practically every cell must have those minimal functions. When we fully understand this minimal set it should be possible to build a computer model that accurately predicts cellular behavior.

I’m used to engineers talking like this and being accused by responsible biologists of oversimplifying things, so it’s very appealing to hear biologists like Venter using this kind of language. The scenario he’s describing won’t happen fast, but it will happen, and it’s one of our best avenues forward. The scent of big game is in the air, and the hounds are off. Dozens of labs around the world are working the problem of minimal or synthetic life from as many different angles. It’s hard to say when something practical will come of it, but exciting science is churning out at a furious rate. Maybe we need to dangle one of those DARPA Grand Challenge carrots. If we work it right, we can arrange it so those crazy post-docs don’t get any sleep at all.

2 thoughts on “Synthesizing life”

  1. As a responsible biologist, I am compelled to take up the gauntlet and point out some oversimplifications in this venture.

    While I love this “minimal cell” stuff personally, I have to take issue with the quote, “the question is of fundamental importance because practically every cell must have those minimal functions.” This assumes that life is composed of autonomous cells, since that’s ultimately what they’re studying. Assumptions are generally bad practice, and are certainly not scientific. “But,” you say, “I learned that all life IS composed of cells.” Well, as Karl Popper pointed out, collected observations are not proof; at the time the time the Cell theory was postulated, the authors left out the words “identified to date” such that subsequent acellular lifeforms (e.g. viruses) are still regarded as non-living by many adherents. For that matter, the original statement of the Cell theory would place bread mold in the non-living category. Oops.

    The other problem with the statement is the whole autonomy thing – in humans we refer to “cells that function autonomously” as cancer.

  2. Excellent! I’ve been trying to provoke a response from a responsible biologist with my free-wheeling glad-handing shoot-from-the-hip “let’s build a lab in the back yard and make life” attitude. And since I haven’t heard from Mike in a while, it’s doubly good news. I love biology, but I’m no biologist, so it’s good to have somebody keeping the discussion honest.

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