A synthetic genome

I am not an expert on genetics. I have done some reading the past ten years and have far more information about the subject than I did when I finished medical school 40 years ago, or when I picked up a cell biology book five years ago. I began by starting to read Gene VII, by Lewin. I quickly realized that I did not know enough molecular biology to understand it. I ordered the cell biology book and spent a year reading it cover to cover. While I was digesting this new material, Craig Venter was making the Gene VII book obsolete. He set up a new company to compete with the Human Genome Project The result is well described in The Genome War by James Shreeve who was given access to Venter but less to the government funded project. This year, Venter’s autobiography was published and his plans for the future are described.

A lengthy essay on the future of applied genetics is here. It is not easy reading for those who have no background in biology but it should be read. Both the good future, which may exist, and its evil twin are outlined. The patent applications submitted by Venter for a synthetic genome and for a synthetic living organism, are linked. Venter has constructed an artificial virus already. An artificial bacterium is planned although that will be a far larger project. A virus is a parasite and does not have the basic systems for life. It is just a genome with a protein envelope. A living organism is tougher to make but so was the atom bomb.

Such an organism can be used as as a weapon (I’ve ordered Hammes’ book) or as a beneficial organism to make oil or clean up the environment.

I’ve got some reading to do and will post more as I learn more. For one thing, Gene VII, which I still have, is so out of date that I have ordered the new edition. The Genome Project results (both of them) have so changed the understanding of how genetics works that there is wrong information in the older version.

Venter is also collecting random water samples from the oceans to identify new organisms from ocean water. He then hopes to use the genetic makeup of the organism to predict its properties and select some of those properties to transfer to other organisms. More synthetic organisms, for multiple applications, are planned. I wish more people understood biology.

Update: The Hammes book arrived and will be read this weekend.

3 Responses to “A synthetic genome”

  1. al says:

    Dear Sir,

    I live in America and have a Yahoo Alert for synthetic biology. Your blog came up. It seems that research is progressing at breakneck speed. Venter is a pioneer with his own agenda and Synthia is his first attempt at patenting. I am now reading “Next”, by Michael Crichton. There is much to fear in this area, as well as nanotechnology and other converging fields. Also, there seems to be some great promise for humankind. The coin is still in the air, turning very fast. Where it lands, no one knows. Keep up your research, kind sir! Al

  2. Eric Blair says:

    Dr. K., I thought you would fine this article interesting/disturbing….


    Hope you are having a good day…

  3. Mike K says:

    That is a very interesting article. Many years ago, I knew a young pathologist at County who later became a well known virologist. We had conversations something like that article. He was convinced that slow viruses were the mechanism of evolution although we had no idea of retroviruses at the time. We assumed that DNA viruses had the ability to attach to the genome of humans. I still wonder if they have to all be retroviruses.