On synthesis

Oh my God, we’re all going to die, exclaimed the Daily Mail today.

Well, we are all going to die some day, but not because of the paper from the J. Craig Venter Institute, published in Science.

I’m having a little trouble understanding the fuss. Admittedly it’s a quite stunning technical achievement, but it doesn’t really tell us anything, does it? It’s simply a brute-force approach to turning one single-celled organism into a different one, isn’t it? Like nuclear transfer, refined to its bare essentials. A technical tour-de-force, and a stunning example of what we can do when we try, and it’s probably ironed out a lot of problems for the rest of us, but it’s more a triumph of marketing than anything else (a bit like the human genome first draft, perhaps?).

It’s not even as if the method is particularly applicable or transferable–dozens of researchers, ten years and 40 million nicker, for, as @Tideliar put it,

just the worlds biggest BAC. Please get a grip.

I will be impressed when, starting only with abiotic chemicals, Venter produces flowers from a genetically-modified top hat. Or am I missing something, and I should expect to see the army of radioactive gorillas marching down up Tottenham Court Road next Tuesday?

Gibson, D., Glass, J., Lartigue, C., Noskov, V., Chuang, R., Algire, M., Benders, G., Montague, M., Ma, L., Moodie, M., Merryman, C., Vashee, S., Krishnakumar, R., Assad-Garcia, N., Andrews-Pfannkoch, C., Denisova, E., Young, L., Qi, Z., Segall-Shapiro, T., Calvey, C., Parmar, P., Hutchison, C., Smith, H., & Venter, J. (2010). Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1190719

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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21 Responses to On synthesis

  1. Ed Gerstner says:

    To add to this, am I the only person who thinks the idea that humans will ever engineer an artificial organism that will compete with natural organisms is laughable? Not only are natural organisms awesomely adapted, they’re pretty bloody viscous too. Or am I being naive?

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    Very good point. Would ‘intelligent design’ cough ever match billions of years of evolution? I think we might be smart enough, you know.
    And yes, natural organisms are very viscous. This chap for example:

    (Sorry Ed, couldn’t help myself).

  3. Richard Wintle says:

    Are we all going to die from this, or when the LHC collapses the planet into a singularity?
    Honestly, I’ve been looking for somewhere to post the erudite observation that this is just like nuclear transfer only more difficult – but you did it already.
    If you see those radioactive gorillas, plz to photgraph with iPhone and post here.

  4. Ian Brooks says:

    Nice one Richard; beat me to it. Even certain ‘real’ news organizations keep saying “synthetic cell”, and it’s really annoying. I have post brewing about the complexities of lipid biology.

  5. Nicolas Fanget says:

    What, the Mail took an innocuous bit of research and turned it into a Frankenstein "we’re all gonna die!" story? Well, I never!
    Daily Mail Cancer Song

  6. Austin Elliott says:

    Someone on Twitter posted jokingly after the Fail’s story

    “Is this going to wipe out Daily Mail readers?”

    I’ll leave you to imagine the kind of responses that appeared.
    Or you can make up your own:

    “Only if they’ve targetted the bug to…………..”

  7. Bronwen Dekker says:

    I need to read the article in detail, but (some of) my first impressions on reading the news in the guardian this morning were similar to yours:
    – Very Clever Indeed (especially liked that there was an email address written in the code that you could contact if you “broke it”.)
    – Rather complicated way to re-invent a wheel.
    – Aren’t there an awful lot of animals going extinct?
    – How am I going to talk about this to my in-laws?

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    Nicolas, to be fair I never expressed shock at the Mail’s treatment. Austin, nice link to your twitter account, but where are the response?
    Ian and Richard–sorry to beat you. I was stunned nobody here had done it yet, to be honest (and I never check non-work blogs during work hours, natch).
    Bronwen, that’s an awesome third impression. The fourth ain’t half too shabby either.
    (And congrats on the IDLTR, by the way)

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’m interested in what the Obamatron will make of it.

  10. Austin Elliott says:

    “Austin, nice link to your twitter account, but where are the response?”
    Damn, you’re too good at spotting my desperate trans-media self-publicising cross-pimping, Richard. It was the 4th tweet down – I can’t figure out how to link to a single Tweet, and given the sentiment I thought it might have been too inflammatory for NN

  11. Richard P. Grant says:
  12. Austin Elliott says:

    Ah – the Twitter timestamp is the unique identifier/link – hadn’t spotted that, dim of me. Thanks, Richard.
    Shall do lots more of those from now on…
    Getting back to Venter, he is an interesting character – for me he is kind of a throwback to the turn of the C19th entrepreneurs. He has always been a hell of a salesman too – John Sulston’s The Common Thread gives many examples of how the public genome project people felt they got outmanoeuvred by Venter’s brilliance at orchestrating the media coverage.

  13. Henry Gee says:

    And yes, natural organisms are very viscous
    Here’s a viscous organism. Or it was after they’d cooked it.

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

    That looks vicious, Henry.
    Austin, I’ve got nothing against salesmen per se, especially if they have lots of money and drive science forward (Venter was pretty much responsible for getting the HGP done I think). It’s simply that what’s being claimed is pretty dubious.
    “Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome”
    It’s far too easy to put the break after ‘Cell’, and forget the modifier. And that gives totally the wrong message—it’s not just the Daily Fail that’s been taken in, either.

  15. Bronwen Dekker says:

    (thanks, Richard)

  16. Austin Elliott says:

    bq. “It’s far too easy to put the break after ‘[Creation of a Bacterial] Cell’, and forget the modifier. And that gives totally the wrong message—it’s not just the Daily Fail that’s been taken in, either.”
    Well, as per my previous comment you might say that was Venter all over, though I guess the need of the journalists to file a story that will run high up the news pages means that the story has to be packaged as “epochal” or “God 2.0” or similar.
    In The Common Thread an, er, common thread in Sulston’s account is that the announcements from Celera, which were then widely reported, often didn’t live up to their headline billing on close examination by the rest of the sequencing people..

  17. Richard P. Grant says:

    Avoiding viscose is always a good idea.

  18. Eva Amsen says:

    Some people are at work, Ed…
    [scrolls quickly]

  19. Richard P. Grant says:

    Just a filler comment so that the crotches aren’t visible when you scroll right down here.
    Is that better?

  20. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Saw this interesting link via a tweet from Ben Goldacre – PZ Meyers collected some media misrepresentations about the paper.
    Some of them made me chuckle.

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