Microbiology: The business side of synthetic life

J. Craig Venter is more focused on practical applications than playing God.

For a culture raised on images of Dr. Frankenstein cackling “It’s alive!” as his monster lurched around the lab, the recent announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute claiming they had created synthetic life received surprisingly mixed reviews.

The scientific consensus is that the institute has achieved a technical advance but not a conceptual breakthrough. On the other hand, the business community is excited about the possibility of engineering cells for industrial uses. Among those thrilled by the discovery’s potential is a company called Synthetic Genomics, co-founded by J. Craig Venter to develop genetically engineered cells that can generate biofuels.

And therein lies an important distinction. Venter, who initially won acclaim for using private funding to found Celera Genomics and initiating a race with the public program to sequence the human genome, is more of a businessman than a scientist. The technical achievement has brought him significantly closer to developing a commercial product, and that he fell short of actually creating life is immaterial to his business interests.

In 2007, New Scientist asked Venter, “Assuming you can make synthetic bacteria, what will you do with them?” Venter answered, “Over the next 20 years, Synthetic Genomics is going to become standard for making anything. The chemical industry will depend on it. Hopefully a large part of the energy industry will depend on it.”

Venter’s team created a synthetic genome by stitching together one million “letters” representing a component of DNA called a nucleotide, to form an artificial chromosome. Then, they grafted the DNA onto a bacterium scraped clean of its own genetic material, to create a microbe that replicates based on a DNA sequence that has never existed in the natural world.

The scientific community is skeptical of the Venter Institute’s claim that they have synthesized a cell because the team of scientists used the cytoplasm of an existing bacterium as a template. According to Krishna Mahadevan, a professor of chemical engineering, synthesizing a cell “requires two components, the information (DNA), as well as the environment (e.g., cytoplasm). So far, this work has done only one part.”

Paul Thompson, a University of Toronto professor of philosophy and zoology says this advance is not substantively different from genetically modifying an organism, such as altering canola to be more resistant to certain insects. The fact that the team used a cytoplasm from a bacterium means that they did not create a synthetic cell. But for the purposes of engineering a cell for industrial use, it makes no difference if the chromosomal DNA is grafted onto an existing template.

The Venter Institute’s discovery opens up the possibility of adding desirable functions to the genome of a cell, getting rid of undesirable ones, and even synthesizing genes with traits that don’t occur in nature. Some people are speculating that scientists could put an end to extinction and reintroduce species like the woolly mammoth and the dodo. Others have theorized we could design a cell to digest oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Cells that produce Ritalin, heroin, anthrax and plutonium are all in the realm of possibility.

That said, Thompson points out that synthesizing a gene that doesn’t exist naturally is very difficult to do, and for the next five years or so, it is likely scientists will have to work with genes from nature. But with such a diverse selection of organisms in the natural world, it’s unlikely that will be a barrier to commercialization.

Synthetic Genomics is investigating a naturally occurring organism capable of generating biofuels. ExxonMobil has invested $600 million in the company to research the possibility of synthesizing algae that converts carbon dioxide into fuel. The partnership is looking at blue-green algae, a one-celled organism found in the ocean that turns carbon into fuel. Venter claims an industrial cell with this function could be worth over $1 trillion.

According to Thompson, this prospect is still years in the future. For one thing, algae is much more complicated than a simple bacteria. And even if they were to engineer a cell today that had the desired characteristics, he says, it would take one or two years to get through the regulatory process.

“I don’t think we’ll see commercialization of the kind he has in mind for many years,” says Thompson.