Is "synthetic biology" on the point of making life? Unlike genetic engineering or biotechnology, the new discipline is not about tinkering with biology but about remaking it. Risks and rewards will be greater than anything yet encounteredby Philip Ball / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Two years ago American scientists created life. Or did they? It all depends on what you mean by life. More specifically, it depends on whether you are prepared to regard viruses as living entities. Viruses have genes, and they replicate, mutate and evolve, all of which sounds lifelike enough. And in August 2002, a team at the State University of New York (SUNY) announced that it had made a virus from scratch, by chemistry alone.
What this meant was that, for the first time since life began over 3.5bn years ago, a living organism had been created with genetic material that was not inherited from a progenitor.
To what did the SUNY researchers choose to award the honour of being the first synthetic organism? They selected a virus that scientists have spent decades trying to eradicate, a cause of human disability and death: polio. If you think that sounds unwise, so did some biologists. Craig Venter, former head of the privately-funded US human genome project conducted by Celera Genomics, called the work “irresponsible” and claimed that it could hurt the scientific community.
To Eckard Wimmer, who led the SUNY team, this alarming choice of target was the whole point. If they could do it, so could bioterrorists. Wimmer’s group did not apply any great technical wizardry: they simply looked up the chemical structure of the polio virus genome on the internet, ordered segments of the genetic material from companies that synthesise DNA, and then strung them together to make a complete genome. When mixed with the appropriate enzymes, this synthetic DNA provided the seed from which the infectious polio virus particles grew. It was so simple that some researchers claimed it could be done by undergraduates.
Making viruses from scratch is just one of the potentially devastating capabilities of a new field of science called synthetic biology. Most biologists cling to the belief that theirs is a pure science, an exploration of the world “out there” – far removed from the moral dilemmas of applied science and technology. But synthetic biology tells us that biology is no longer an immutable aspect of the world.