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Synthetic Life

Alex: Hi my name’s Alex Grigg, and this is my teammate Dev Yvas. And we would like to welcome you to the first episode of Synthetic Ethics. So Dev, I’m sure your familiar with synthetic biology, but what about our listeners who still don’t quite get what synthetic biology is?

Dev: Well synthetic biology is an emerging science with vast potential and opportunity. It can be described as the combination of science and engineering. What synthetic biologists do is create new organic systems operating within living organisms. It even has the potential to create life from scratch.

Alex: I’m going to stop you right there, because today we are discussing the ethics of synthetic life, a topic which draws some of the most excitement, and controversy to our field. So, if I were to tell you that a colossal achievement that has been compared to other scientific milestones such as the sequencing of the human genome, and the cloning of the sheep Dolly happened just a few months ago, what would you think I was talking about?

Dev: Does it have anything to do with Bald Bearded scientists?

Alex: Good guess Dev! Although I think every scientific milestone can be somehow attributed to the Bald and Bearded. The particular accomplishment to which I’m referring is the creation of synthia, the first synthetic, self-replicating life.

Dev: That’s right, in 2008 a team of scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute headed up by Drs. Craig Venter, our bald and bearded scientist, Hamilton Smith, and Clyde Hutchison were able to create a small bacterial genome, and by May 2010 it was announced that they had successfully used a synthetic genome of the bacterium mycroplasma mycocides to create a bacteria that could sustain, and replicate itself.

Alex: Alright, lets take a step back and talk about how such an achievement was attained. It all started with the chemical synthesis of DNA fragments of 1078 base pairs. These cassettes each had overlaps of 80 base pairs, which allowed them to be recombined in yeast. 10 of these cassettes were recombined into 10kb cassettes of DNA, which were then recombined again into 100kb pieces that could be used to create the final synthetic genome of mycroplasma myocides which is 1.08 million basepairs long. Venter and his team also included what are called “watermarks” in the genome which are sequences that allow us to differentiate this synthetic genome, from the naturally occurring genome. But what’d they do next with the genome?

Dev: Well, M. mycoide genomes were transplanted into restriction-minus Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cells. These cells, containing only the synthetic genome that they had created, were able to self-replicate.

Alex: This Sounds like great news! Craig Venter and his team has proven that we are able to create life, Imagine the possibilities. We could potentially create organisms which we have never before observed.

Dev: Well I for one think “We're all doomed! Doooooooooooommmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeeeeddd!!!”

Alex: Wow Really? Why?

Dev: To be honest I don’t really think we’re all doomed, but that is a comment taken from a story in the guardian in which many of the reader’s voice concerns about synthetic life, and show that there is a lot of fear taken from news of this achievement. Another commenter, posting under the name CruyffTurn had a concern when he read that the synthetic organism had included watermarks so that we can keep track of it. He said: “So, what you really mean if the organism somehow manages to escape in to the environment, subsequently mutating in to some evil virulent pathogen, killing billions, we can be safe in the knowledge that we will know where it came from. Amazing piece of scientific work though.”

Alex: Well do you think that there’s a possibility that this synthetic mycroplasma myocide will mutate into a some sort of superbug that will kill billions?

Dev: I’m actually not that concerned. What people need to understand is that the bug that Craig Venter synthesized is essentially the same as a bug that came to us naturally, through Darwinian evolution. The DNA is fully synthetic, but the sequence itself is natural, and so is the cell in which they inserted the genome so that it can replicate and carry out protein synthesis.

Alex: Well it seems to me that we aren’t doomed at all, all they made was an naturally occurring germ. But, another commenter said “I want to be excited by this news, but it scares the bejeezus out of me...”

Dev: So what else are they scared of?

Alex: Well I know a lot of fear stems from the possibility of synthesizing organisms which would be extremely harmful to humans if they were released.

Dev: Ok, I think that is a legitimate concern. So what kind of organisms would that be?

Alex: Well one example of a synthetic organism that could cause massive casualties is smallpox. Digital genomes of smallpox are present online, and could potentially be created chemically using a similar process that Craig Venter used. In June 2006 a reporter for the guardian obtained a small sequence of smallpox DNA delivered to his home from a gene synthesis company. Now that sounds scary.

Dev: Well what kind of company would send the smallpox genome to a residential address? Even if it is piece by piece.

Alex: This reporter was able to achieve this from a major gene synthesis company through the lack of screening technology and safeguards that are present at these gene synthesis companies. As the price of synthesizing genes gets more and more affordable, efficient safeguards which screen both the content being ordered, and who is ordering them needs to be put in place in order to ensure that gene sequencing isn’t used by would-be terrorists.

Dev: Why isn’t there anything already in place to help gene synthesis companies from sending out sequences that contain harmful genes?

Alex: Actually there is. The International Gene Synthesis Consortium is an organization consisting of 5 major gene synthesis companies, and makes up over 80% of commercial gene synthesis capacity world-wide. These companies have agreed to screen synthetic gene orders to identify pathogen sequences and other potentially dangerous sequences, screen customers by requiring identification, and keep records for at least 8 years of customers, sequences, and delivery information. They also do not send to post office boxes, which seems like a no brainer to me.

Dev: Ok, so we can all feel a little safer knowing that random people can’t just order sequences containing harmful genes, but the idea that some disgruntled scientist can synthesize killer bugs in his basement is a little far-fetched.

Alex: Yeah people need to understand that this kind of work requires more than a few test tubes. What kind of things would a disgruntled scientists need if he wanted to synthesize an evil organism?

Dev: Well besides the need for precise chemical synthesis of gene fragments from somewhere such as a gene synthesis company, synthesizing self-replicating life requires high-throughput sequencing facilities so that you can be sure you have the right sequence, sophisticated designing strategy, and multiple steps of quality control. Among other things.

Alex: So this sort of thing couldn’t be done alone in your garage.

Dev: Assuming your garage isn’t extremely well equipped.

Alex: But people aren’t just worried about their safety in the sense that harmful organisms could be created, there is also a lot of concern revolving around the ethical implications of our newfound capacity to chemically create life. There’s a lot of use of the phrase “playing god”.

Dev: But is this a real worry? I mean it’s not like we can now create new organisms or animals.

Alex: Well there is a concern that as we further this technology, we will be able to create organisms that did not come to us through natural Darwinian evolution, and even gain the ability to use this technology to genetically design humans.

Dev: That sounds almost like something out of science fiction.

Alex: At this stage in the game, it sort of is, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be aware of the ethical risks associated with the advancement of our capability to synthesize life. The Vatican’s response to the creation of replicating synthetic life by Craig Venter and his team was actually fairly positive. “If it is used toward the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive” the Vatican’s top bioethics official, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, told Italian state-run television news programme TG Uno. The head of the Italian Catholic bishop’s conference Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco said that “intelligence can never be without responsibility”

Dev: Well I think that that properly sums up the attitude that we should have towards instances like this. The advent of synthetic life represents a momentous step forward in mankind’s ability to combat many of the problems facing us, but we need to ensure that those tools are not abused so as to cause harmful results.


Alex: Well thanks for joining us while we explore the ethical issues associated with synthetic biology. If your looking for more news and exciting stories within synthetic biology, check out our blog at (BLOG ADRESS), or if you want to learn more about our team and the work we are doing check out our wiki at