Craig Venter, a longtime leader in synthetic biology if not a founder, has continued to pursue creation of a life form with the smallest number of genes that can act as a living envelop for a created synthetic organism. Venter’s team has now announced a bacterial cell that Venter calls the “most simple of all organisms.” It only has 473 genes.
An article published on March 24, 2016 by Science magazine describes the new organism as a “Tour de force” in a quote of George Church, a synthetic biologist at Harvard University. Also known as Syn 3.0, the living bacterium has been cut down to the bare essential genes to sustain life. It has the least known or smallest genome of a living organism to date.
The problem with this new development is that it can be described as creating more questions than it answers. In trying to eliminate genes that did not keep this most basic bacterium alive, the synthetic biologist team found 149 of the 473 genes whose purpose was unknown. These genes remained a mystery because no one on the team could identify what functions these particular genes had.
The March 25, 2016 issue of Science magazine has an article entitled Design and synthesis of a minimal bacterial genome, which was written by Venter’s own team. This article said in conclusion, “The minimal cell concept appears simple at first glance but becomes more complex upon close inspection. In addition to essential and nonessential genes, there are many quasi-essential genes, which are not absolutely critical for viability but are nevertheless required for robust growth….Unexpectedly, it also contains 149 genes with unknown biological functions, suggesting the presence of undiscovered functions that are essential for life.”
This represents a continuation of a trend that was last highlighted in an article in this blog entitled, “Troubling Progress for Synthetic Biology” see www.iamaguardian.com/category/protect/synthetic-biology/page/2/ . This May 2012 article shows that the same teams are making progress on their respective objectives. It also shows that this research team is taking the easiest path to a conclusion and the simplicity of their approach to research, simplicity that allows for 149 unknown genes. These bacteria represent the next chapter of the J. Craig Venter team. These bacteria grow and thrive in a laboratory environment.
We continue to call for regulation of Venter’s team’s experimental efforts. It is clear they are taking a very ‘ham-handed’ approach to finding the secret of life. What else will they fail to know about the microbes they create? What will they care? What will stop them from taking a shortcut to wealth when they find a path to an IPO or a new product rather than take the appropriate steps to be safety conscious? This again highlights that this area has no government regulator or regulatory regime to look over their shoulder and insure their efforts are in the public interest.
The announcements themselves seem to respond to funders thirst for progress, which must be threatening to not give them any more money. These numbers do not assuage the concerns of the public.
Would you announce proudly the fact that you have whittled down bacterial genes to 473 when you continue to not know what 149 or over 30% of these genes do? Why would you make sweeping public announcements about this accomplishment? We need regulation and oversight of this area now. We must slow these teams and their zeal to reach the next plateau in living out their founder’s dreams of great wealth and renown.
Use the following links to access more information or read the source documents used to prepare this article.