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Scientists create first ever synthetic bacterium that looks like Craig Venter

Venter_mycoplasma

In a move that’s been hailed as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the century, a group of scientists have created a synthetic bacterium that looks like Craig Venter.

The team artificially synthesised a genome in the lab and inserted it into an empty bacterial cell, which promptly remodelled its outer wall into a picture of Venter’s face.

“Before today, there had only been one genome in the world with the right sequence of nucleotides to encode my face,” said Venter, speaking from his secret volcano lair. “Now there are two, and I can’t help but think that things have greatly improved.

“Of course, the ultimate goal is to build a creature with 100 heads, not unlike the mythical hydra, but where every head is my head.

“Or, er, something about biofuels,” he added.

Other scientists warned that the ethical debates sparked by the discovery had only begun. Andrew McQueen from New York University said, “Imagine going for a walk in the park only to find that every bird in the trees has Craig’s face on it and they’re all looking at you.”

“They’re not smiling either,” he added before curling up on the floor and crying quietly.

While the research was widely reported as a major breakthrough, other newspapers were more critical, with one spokesperson saying, “He’s basically just taken information from an existing source, copied it and reprinted it in another place. That’s our f**king job!”

Meanwhile, it transpired that Venter has coded a line from a James Joyce novel into his synthetic genome, a move that drew condemnation from America’s creationist groups, who didn’t understand what a novel was.

(For actual takes on this story, see a straight take in the Times, eight glowing reactions in Nature, a more reserved take in the New York Times that more closely mirrors my own feelings, and an excellent explanation of the new paper’s technical achievements, which are indeed substantial.)

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17 thoughts on “Scientists create first ever synthetic bacterium that looks like Craig Venter

  1. This may be a stupid question, but I’ll ask it anyway. If we use bacteria as biofuels, what happens when they start mutating upon replication? Won’t their capability of providing biofuel be compromised?

  2. Ah ah ah!
    However, if the novel was Ulysses, than creationists would be excused – that is not a novel, it’s just a glorified waste of paper XD

  3. People who live in a secret volcano lair can be forgiven for momentarily forgetting about the biofuel thing, they have bigger dreams in mind. I remember the fertility doc who compassionately impregnated all his patients with his own genetic material instead of the inferior seed of their husbands. Really big dreams. Thanks for the entertainment and the links.

  4. If we use bacteria as biofuels, what happens when they start mutating upon replication? Won’t their capability of providing biofuel be compromised?

    If we use yest cells to bake bread, what happens when they start mutating upon replication? Won’t their capability of providing dough be compromised?

    [Oh noes! Don’t touch my cookies… om nom nom.]

    Yeast has been used in bread baking in the form of sour dough for thousands of years.

    The method is of course the same as for every other species we have modified and then kept with stable traits (dogs, horses, et cetera), artificial selection replaces natural selection. The bacteria batches that provides wrong product are destructed, the non-compromised batches are kept.

  5. “Meanwhile, it transpired that Venter has coded a line from a James Joyce novel into his synthetic genome, a move that drew condemnation from America’s creationist groups, who didn’t understand what a novel was.”

    Genius.

  6. If we use bacteria as biofuels, what happens when they start mutating upon replication? Won’t their capability of providing biofuel be compromised?

    A little bit of compromise would probably be inevitable. Unlike with most other domestic animals and plants, we’re not going to be able to control and selection at every single generation, so as our synthetic bacteria grow up, some small proportion with mutations are bound to arise and spread and compromise the intended purpose.

    But of course we never get 100% theoretical perfect processes anyways from any sort of engineering. The trick is to simply keep the efficiency high enough to be useful. That shouldn’t be insurmountable.

    If we use yest cells to bake bread, what happens when they start mutating upon replication? Won’t their capability of providing dough be compromised?

    One advantage with the yeast is we are exploiting a trait in the yeast that is also beneficial to the yeast themselves. To some extent evolutionary pressures will work in our favor to preserve the trait we want.

    When we try to design synthetic organisms to do useful tasks for us, we’ll probably try to engineer them in that manner too. If we want them to make biofuel, for example, we won’t want to make the biochemical pathway for producing the biofuel wholly an energetic drain on the bacteria – in which case any mutations that compromise the function will be favored, and we’d have to be constantly fighting that tendency with our own artificial selection. We’d ideally want the biofuel generating pathway to also provide a benefit to the bacteria – for example by generating energy for them as the precursor is converted to the biofuel, or something like that.

  7. Damn, Ed! I was planning to go birding tomorrow, and now you’ve got me looking for Craig Venter’s face on every bird.

  8. @Chris : no, it’s not a stupid question. Indeed in bioreactors the original strain is periodically refreshed, exactly to prevent production of mutated strains that create secondary polluting metabolites.

    Examples… I don’t have my book of industrial biochemistry with me, and a long time has passed, but if I am not mistaken typical cases are vinegar/acetic acid production, ethanol from sugar production byproducts, and yogurt production. All these bioreactors require periodic maintenance to remove and reseed the fresh strain once in a while.

  9. Although clearly a technical advance, Venter’s recent work has considerably been blown out of proportions. If anything of what we know about how the genome works is true, there is no surprise that synthesizing a sequence of nucleotides (known to be the recipient’s genome) and inserting into a cell with a fully functional biochemical machinery leads to viable cells. Understanding genetic regulation and control takes approaches qualitatively different from this one as illustrated by works such as this (http://www.elowitz.caltech.edu/publications/Tunability.pdf) and this (http://rsif.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/6/34/463.long).

  10. @Yassen — well, maybe. But his Institute’s publicity operation sent out thousands of press packs that were not humble at all…

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