‘Synthetic’ Cell Research Isn’t Frankenstein Science, but Raises Troubling Questions, Analysts Say

By Jane McGrath | May 26, 2010 | 9:49 PM EDT

Negatively stained transmission electron micrographs of dividing M. mycoides JCVI-syn1. Electron micrographs were provided by Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California at San Diego. (Photos courtesy J. Craig Venter Institute)

(CNSNews.com) - The recent report that scientists have created a “synthetic cell” for the first time has raised several questions about the societal and ethical implications of such technology. 

A research team at the J. Craig Venter Institute claims to have developed a cell with synthetically manufactured genetic information. Venter, the biologist and entrepreneur who led the Human Genome Project while at the National Institutes of Health, has founded and funded his own biological research companies, including the not-for-profit institute.

This technology is neither simple cloning nor is it the Frankenstein-like creation of new life. Specifically, the authors of the research article claim the successful “design, synthesis and assembly” and finally “transplantation” of the genome – or genetic map – of a specific type of bacteria. 

In other words, the scientists claim they were able to copy and create synthetic genetic information virtually identical to that of a “donor cell” of one bacterium and implant it into an already existing “recipient cell” of another bacterium. The recipient cell in turn operated completely on this synthetic genetic information that was transplanted into it so that it replicated and even constructed proteins like that of the donor cell. 

“People need to understand that, despite the more lurid headlines that Craig Venter ‘created synthetic life,’ (he didn’t) – not really,” Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council and science adviser for several members of Congress, told CNSnews.com. 

Prentice said that Venter “did make a significant step forward in being able to design and put together these genomes for a very small bacterium.”

Others agree that claims that the scientists created a “synthetic cell” are “a bit of a misnomer and a bit of hype.”

Dawn Vargo, a bioethics analyst for Focus on the Family, agreed that it was a “significant advancement.” 

“What they really did when you get down to it on a simple level, is they created synthetic DNA, and they created that in such a way that they could introduce it into a bacterium cell and make the cell function,” Vargo said. 

The lead scientist admits they didn’t create life. In the research article, authors stipulate, “We refer to such a cell controlled by a genome assembled from chemically synthesized pieces of DNA as a “synthetic cell.” even though the cytoplasm of the recipient cell is not synthetic.” 

Venter, however, claimed the advancement rocked his perspective.

“It's certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works,” he told ScienceDaily.

Scientists are hopeful that such technology will someday be used for many useful purposes, such as assisting in vaccine production and engineering algae to absorb carbon dioxide.

Already, however, analysts are pointing to the potential for using the biotechnology for bioterrorism or manipulating human genetic data. Prentice says such speculation is warranted. 

“The real step here was being able to put together a large strand of DNA -- essentially a whole genome, whereas before technology was limited to smaller pieces -- genes and longer strands,” Prentice pointed out. “Now we’re looking at an entire organism work of DNA. And yes, it’s a simple organism, but still an entire organism, which means now you are looking at potentials for bioterrorism or (creating) pathogens.”

The Vatican has even weighed in on the advancement. An article in the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, labeled the discovery as being “important research” that “can do good” in so far as it could potentially cure diseases. However, the article also warned that such research enters into “fragile territory” and that the work did not create life, but merely “replaced one of its motors.”

A top Vatican bioethics official, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, clarified to the Italian television news program, “TG Uno,” that the Vatican has a positive view of the technology “if it is used toward the good” -- but that its judgment would change if the discoveries turn out not to be “useful to respect the dignity of the person.” 

Prentice warns of the potential of “disease-causing organisms that would be able to evade detection” or that would be resistant to antibiotics. 

“There needs to be some specific care taken in terms of how these organisms are designed and put together,” he told CNSNews.com.

This technology also brings us closer to the idea of designer babies, according to Prentice, who said he thinks scientists should not try this technology on humans. 

Vargo noted the threat of dangerous bacteria escaping into the environment, but also stressed the potential of negative effects creating medicines with this technology. This then would become a “safety concern” for patients.

But even seemingly beneficial developments from such technology could have widespread disastrous results, according to Prentice. 

“One possibility that’s already been mentioned is the idea of oil-eating bacteria” that could clean up the recent Gulf oil spill, says Prentice. But he added: “What if they got into the strategic petroleum reserves?” 

When the scientists claim they transplanted a synthetic genome, the term “genome” refers to all of the genes in a particular organism. After the scientists copied and digitized the genomic information from the bacterium M. mycoides, they successfully built the synthetic genome from scratch using “four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer” and “information in a computer,” Venter said in a news release.

Step by Step in Synthsizing a Genome 

To synthesize the genome, scientists had to assemble long sequences of DNA, which was made possible using yeast and E. coli bacteria. They completed the synthetic genome after several rounds of this process, until they were able to transplant the completed genome into another kind of bacteria, M. capricolum.

The initial attempt failed due to an error in the genetic sequence. According to the report, “Our success was thwarted for many weeks by a single base pair deletion in the essential gene dnaA.” Incredibly, “One wrong base out of over one million in an essential gene rendered the genome inactive, while major genome insertions and deletions in non-essential parts of the genome had no observable impact on viability.”
After several weeks delay, the scientists tried again to find better success. In making the genome, scientists inserted a “watermark” DNA sequence that would clearly distinguish it as synthetic. The M. capricolum cells carrying the watermarked, synthetic M. mycoides genome began to reproduce and make proteins that were almost identical to that made by M. mycoides.
“We clearly transformed one cell into another,” Venter told Science magazine.
The “synthesized cells” were almost identical – but not entirely. The authors pointed out that 14 genes were “deleted or disrupted” in the synthetic M. mycoides genome. And the synthetic transplants grew “slightly faster” than those naturally created.
Both Prentice and Vargo agree that now more than ever regulation and oversight over such research is needed, given the potential for abuse.
As the researchers stated in the Science magazine article: “DNA sequencing of a cellular genome allows storage of the genetic instructions for life as a digital file.”
Prentice said that scientists need to “step forward” to ensure that they proceed cautiously in such lines of research, and that “society in general needs to look at our responsibility for any sorts of organisms that we manipulate in this way.”
He added: "Scientists can often have a certain amount of hubris about how much we understand, how much we can control when we’re doing this type of manipulation.” 
The “kid-in-a-candy-shop mentality” also affects scientists, Vargo said. “If scientists can do something, they most often will, and that’s not always right. Sometimes just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it ought to be.”