It's Alive! It's Alive! (OK, Not Yet, But Pretty Soon)


Private genome sequencer Craig Venter and his colleagues announced yesterday that they had recreated the entire genome of a bacterium using off-the-shelf chemicals. They have not yet installed this lab-created genome into a bacterial cell to see if it will boot up, but hope to do so later this year. The bacterial genome is from Mycoplasma genitalium which has the smallest known genome–just over 580,000 base pairs of DNA–of any free living organism (and which incidentally was the second genome of a free living organism ever sequenced by Venter way back in 1995). Venter argues that today'a achievement is a step toward synthetic biology in which researchers can endow living things with novel genetic programs to produce a wide variety of useful substances. Among other things, Venter wants to create bacteria that can transform plant material into hydrocarbon fuels.

Other teams are working on the same goal by tinkering with the genomes of various bacteria to produce biofuels like butanol. Naturally, anti-technology and anti-corporate activist groups are calling for a moratorium on the research.

Fun addendum: The New York Times notes:

The team also added some DNA segments to the genome to serve as "watermarks," allowing scientists to distinguish the synthetic genome from the natural one.

That raises new possibilities of using microbes as a method of communication. Dr. Venter said the watermarks contain coded messages. Sleuths will have to determine the amino acid sequence coded for by the watermarks, in order to decipher the message. "It's a fun thing that has a practical application," he said.

Of course, as I reported back in 2000, artists have already done something similar. At a show at the Exit Art gallery entitled "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution," artist Eduardo Kac created a fascinating installation which featured bacteria with an added "art gene." Here's what Kac did:

Take the installation Genesis, by Brazilian-born, Chicago-based artist Eduardo Kac. Upon walking into a darkened room, viewers see a large circle of light on the far wall—the projected image from a micro-video camera of a bacteria-laden petri dish in the center of the room. On the other walls glow various texts, including a verse from Genesis: "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves over the earth." On a different wall, Kac has translated the Bible verse into the dots and dashes of the first electronic language, Morse code. He then translates the Morse code into the ACGTs of the genetic code, assigning word spaces to adenine, dots to cytosine, letter spaces to guanine, and dashes to thymine. The "art gene" version of Genesis is actually produced by stringing these DNA bases together. Then the DNA bases are inserted into the living E. coli bacteria in the petri dish that viewers see projected before them. By activating an ultraviolet light over the petri dish, viewers can cause the bacteria to mutate, thus becoming co-creators with Kac.

Any speculation on what Venter's encoded message may say?