Typical. One of the most anticipated technological breakthroughs in years hits the streets, and I’m completely off the web – holed up in an Italian hotel with no internet and no phone.
I’m talking of course about J. Craig Venter’s team’s breakthrough in synthesizing a living organism, almost from scratch – published in the journal Science on Thursday and speculated on by everyone from Nobel laureates to Vatican officials since…
Having followed synthetic biology for some time, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the announcement that Venter has finally created a synthetic organism. So I was more than a little frustrated to miss the first wave of commentaries on this week’s paper. And coming late to the game, I now find that “Venter Fatigue” is already setting in – making writing a blog that someone wants to read all the harder.
But there are issues and ideas that I think are still worth exploring here. So this is what I’m going to do:
For today, I thought I would recycle some stuff I wrote on what might be called “digital biology” last year – the potentially disruptive concept underlying synthetic biology that could well herald a new era of how we control the world we live in. Then, when I’ve had a bit more time to marshal my thoughts, I’ll aim to write something about risks and ethics – and especially the need to place discussions on a science basis, and not get over-distracted by ethical hand-wringing.
But back to “digital biology.” Last June, I wrote a piece about how our increasing control over matter at the nanoscale is transforming our ability to bend the world to our own ends. This is what I said about advances in manipulating DNA:
“Thirty years ago, the notion of controlling the code of life itself would have been laughable. Now it seems within reach.
Over the past few years, the ease with which genetic code can be sequenced has plummeted. It took 13 years for teams of scientists around the globe to first read the human genome – completing the project in 2001. In 2007, it took 2 months to sequence the genome of DNA-co-discoverer James Watson. And by 2013 it is likely that your personal genome could be read in the time it takes to boil an egg.
Of course, sequencing just reads the information – it doesn’t tell you how to use it. But here’s the important thing – sequencing genomes transforms the information from the physical domain to the digital domain, where it can be experimented with and engineered in new ways. While restricted to the physical world, there were always going to be limitations to how effectively we manipulated and controlled genetic material. In the digital domain, those limitations are gone. Cheap affordable sequencing is ushering in the age of digital biology.
However, playing around with genetic information on computers would be little more than a novelty if it weren’t for one further advance – the plummeting cost of DNA synthesis. This completes the loop between the physical and digital worlds. Now, once you have uploaded your genome into the computer and digitally enhanced it, the technology exists – or soon will – to download the new genome back into reality. It’s a technology that promises to enable an incredibly sophisticated level of genetic engineering. It allows brand new genetic code to be written on the computer, tested out in virtual space, then downloaded back into an organism. It even allows brand new organisms to be designed and created from scratch.
This possibility was pushed home last year when Craig Venter’s team synthesized the genome of a bacterium – Mycobacterium genitalium – from scratch. The team has yet to insert the synthesized DNA into a cell, and thus achieve – in effect – the creation of life from laboratory chemicals. But it seems only a matter of time before this is achieved.
We’re not quite there yet with the technology that will allow us to manipulate biology at the nanoscale. But it’s coming. And when it does, the level of control we have had over matter for the past ten centuries will seem like child’s play.”
This last week’s announcement takes the idea of designing living systems in the digital domain – then reading them back into reality – to the next level. Okay so you can split hairs and say that Venter and his crew didn’t technically synthesize life – they needed a few existing components (the machinery of the cell) to start with. But it really is splitting hairs, because the synthetic genome included the code that allowed this machinery to be constructed from scratch in subsequent generations of the organism. The breakthrough here was the ability to write the complete code for an organism on a computer, then translate it into a real, living, replicating life form.
Of course, there’s a ton of science that we don’t understand here – and given the enormous complexity of living organisms, it will be a long time before we come close to coming close to being able to design a completely new organism from scratch that does what we intend it to do. But that’s not the point here. What we are seeing is the beginning of a new technology, where what we understand is secondary to what we can do.
We may be a long way from perfectly designed organisms. But technology isn’t about perfection – it’s about doing something practical to achieve a tangible result. And to do that, you don’t always need to know why things work; just that they do work.
Without a doubt, this week’s announcement marks the dawn of a new technology – a technology that blurs the boundaries between the digital domain and living organisms. The state of the science may still be lacking. But then how often has a new technology been preceded by a mature science? Usually the technology and the science progress in tandem, and it’s not unusual for the technology to lead the science.
Add to this the incredible progress that has been made in engineering complex systems over the past 100 years – leading to technologies where the whole is greater than the contribution of any individual or team working on it – and the stage is set for Venter’s team’s achievements to profoundly influence how we interact with the living world.
The question is, are we up to handling it?
Note: apologies for an appallingly cliched title, although I was surprised no-one else has used it yet. Guess that’s what jetlag and internet deprivation do for you!