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Synthetic DNA

Synthetic DNA

Craig Venter is not a patient man. Years ago a Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Michael Brown, visited Venter’s laboratory and told us that the entire human DNA molecule would be mapped within a year. Venter was using radical shortcuts, cutting DNA molecules in pieces and then using computers to fit nucleotide groups together, while a larger government-funded operation prodded through the intact molecule’s 2 billion nucleotides one by one. Venter completed his human DNA map within the year.

Venter’s still in a hurry, this time to create synthetic microorganisms that will serve specific human needs. Conceptually, this seems doable; DNA genetic coding consists of differing arrangements of four chemical “bases” (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine), with each of the four building-block bases being a different combination of a few atoms. All animals, and all bacteria, are built from the blueprints contained in each organism’s DNA. Change of even a single base pair within its DNA can have dramatic consequences for an individual, as we know from our knowledge of disabilities caused by out-of-place DNA combinations. Theoretically it’s possible to create an infinite variety of life forms by simply arranging the four bases, then getting the new arrangement to stick together and replicate. In 2010 Venter’s shop created a synthetic DNA molecule which the team inserted into a natural bacterium. It came to life, and Venter is very confident that he can build more ambitious custom microorganisms that will do things such as eat carbon dioxide much more efficiently than plants, and even produce oil as a waste product.

As with a proposed sulphur dioxide shield to reduce the sun’s energy reaching the earth, creating synthetic life may have very large unintended consequences. One of my college classmates wrote a novel about making dinosaurs from fragments of fossil DNA scientists pieced together; that story (turned into the blockbuster hit – Jurassic Park) ended badly after the manufactured dinosaurs mutated and began multiplying beyond what the scientists intended. Synthetic life forms are probably unavoidable because the applicable scientific knowledge and technique is widely available, and there are smart people all over the planet who will want to build new life forms using laboratory-made DNA. Anyway, risking unplanned consequences from genetic engineering is a more hopeful strategy than simply watching our planet burn from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas wastes.

Image by Michael Ströck (mstroeck) [GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


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