May 28, 2010


Baby Steps to New Life-Forms (Olivia Judson, 5/27/10, NY Times)

Intelligent design. That’s one goal of synthetic biology, a field that was catapulted into the news last week with the announcement that a group of biologists had manufactured a genome that exists nowhere in nature and inserted it into a bacterial cell. The dream is that, one day, we’ll be able to sit and think about what sort of life-form we’d like to make — and then design and build it in much the same way we make a bridge or a car. [...]

Already, we have improved on nature to create versions of genes and proteins that do not exist in the wild. [...]

One problem with creating life from the drawing board is that evolved biological systems are complex, and often behave in ways we cannot (thus far) predict. Although we can specify the DNA sequence to make a particular protein, we cannot always predict what the protein will look like or how it will interact with other proteins in the cell. Also, to a large extent, biological systems are not standardized: Yes, we have become good at making DNA, but we do not yet have a “basic” cell, into which everything else can be slotted. In short, while we can copy genomes, and edit them lightly, we are a long way from writing one from scratch.

Although we cannot yet express ourselves fluently in nature’s genetic language, however, there is the tantalizing possibility that we might one day write our own.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 28, 2010 6:02 AM
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