In May 2010, Craig Venter and his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit genomic research organization, announced that they had successfully constructed the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. To grossly oversimplify it, what they did was take a series of computer-generated DNA sequences, stitch them together into a genome (the genetic instruction set to create life) and stick the genome inside an essentially empty cell. I’ll be damned if the thing didn’t start reproducing and creating a new “living organism” that was derived from the genomic “instruction set” that had been implanted.
The result, according to Venter, is, “… the first self-replicating cell on the planet to have a computer for a parent.”
I can see it now: MacBooks everywhere are preparing themselves to ring out with a hearty chorus of, “no you can’t borrow the car” and “clean your damn room.”
This story has amazing implications scientifically, ethically, and in every other adverbial sense. If we can design genomes to create new life forms, we can, theoretically, develop organisms that will cure disease, solve the energy crisis and establish a whole new next generation of horror movie protagonists. The Blob that Ate New York? Yeah, I made that.
While the story is epic in its scientific possibilities, the part of the story that somehow most grabbed me was this press release excerpt:
As in the team’s 2008 publication in which they described the successful synthesis of the M. genitalium genome, they designed and inserted into the genome what they called watermarks. These are specifically designed segments of DNA that use the “alphabet” of genes and proteins that enable the researcher to spell out words and phrases. The watermarks are an essential means to prove that the genome is synthetic and not native, and to identify the laboratory of origin. Encoded in the watermarks is a new DNA code for writing words, sentences and numbers. In addition to the new code there is a web address to send emails to if you can successfully decode the new code, the names of 46 authors and other key contributors and three quotations: “TO LIVE, TO ERR, TO FALL, TO TRIUMPH, TO RECREATE LIFE OUT OF LIFE.” – JAMES JOYCE; “SEE THINGS NOT AS THEY ARE, BUT AS THEY MIGHT BE.”-A quote from the book, “American Prometheus”; “WHAT I CANNOT BUILD, I CANNOT UNDERSTAND.” – RICHARD FEYNMAN.
For some reason that whole concept struck me as incredibly funny. Here you had some of the greatest scientists of our time creating new life and they had to stop to have a meeting to figure out what were the ideal quotations to encode into their new organism.
My first thought was that this is really taking that whole tattoo craze just a little too far. Everywhere you go you see teenagers with more ink than a Hells Angels’ bar and now we are just pre-tatting life forms before birth to save time.
But that aside, I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the lab as they debated what would be just the right oratorical imprint to capture their scientific leap forward.
You can assume they would have quickly dispensed with “Dude, where’s my car?” But did they stop just for a minute and contemplate whether they should go the Field of Dreams route with, “If you build it, he will come”?
Was there a Monty Python fan among them that lobbied for “What is your name? What is your quest? What is your favorite color?” so those who decoded the phrase would also have to provide a specific response? “My name: Craig Venter. My quest: to create new life. My favorite color: blue….no, yellow…aaaaaaggghhhh!”
Maybe a Woody Allen look-alike scientist advocating for: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying. “
You know that one guy just had to suggest the immortal words of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: “LIFE! DO YOU HEAR ME? GIVE MY CREATION… LIFE!”
I realize that this digression from the profundity of the discovery might trivialize what may turn out to be among the key life sciences breakthroughs of our time, but in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “Most of our future lies ahead,” and hopefully I’ll have time to make up for it.