The nano-revolution is presently poised to catapult genetics biology into an exponential expansion.
Thanks to Professors Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith, and their colleagues, we now know we can “boot up” software in a living cell.
According to this week’s Economist article about their gene-bustin’ research, we’ve now crossed “a milestone on the road from the craft of biotechnology, which manipulates genes one at a time, to the industry of synthetic biology, which aims to make wholesale changes to living things.”
Pretty big progress, coming from a little mycoplasma.
These persistent researchers have now demonstrated that synthetic chromosomes can be gathered and harnessed, like oxen or a mules bred for specific purposes, to perform genetic tasks in the laboratory.
The scientists started with a computer program, and four chemicals–adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. They whipped up a laboratory concoction, inserted it into a host organism, and came up with a designer life-form.
Intelligent design, don’t you know.
Surely this is a Nobel Prize breakthrough. These guys put together a self-replicating cell whose parent is a computer.
Perhaps one day, they, or those researchers who come after them, will engineer, let’s say, a new algae organism that can produce biofuels on a commercially viable scale. The naturally-occurring algae are, you see, not inclined to do such a thing. But with a little nudging from us human taskmasters, they could be persuaded to maybe plow up our hydrocarbonal fallow ground for us.
These constructed genes can, as David Baltimore said on the Diane Rehm Show, “drive a cell.”
I think we’ll be, in days to come, like the pioneers of old, who would drive a mule to get the back forty plowed, except that our new customized chromosomal critters will be breaking new ground for medical and environmental progress. Agricultural too, no doubt.
Steve Roberts, sitting in for Diane Rehm this (Monday) morning, facilitated an incredibly instructive discussion about this most recent accomplishment. David Rejeski referred to the breakthrough as “gaining control of matter at a nano level.” Steve Roberts mentioned that we are moving forward toward “controlling the building blocks” of the next industrial revolution.
David Baltimore recounted that we have been on a path of microbiological progress that turned a big corner in 1953. That’s when Watson and Crick described the molecular structure of DNA. Since that time we’ve learned to read that genetic code, and to even recreate it. Now, according to Baltimore, we can “see the trajectory of it (our accumulating knowledge.)”
Scientists work collaboratively toward synthesizing more and more genes. It will be a lot of work, for a long time. In the human genome–the main one we’re trying to sustain and protect– are contained 3 billion base-pairs of nucleotides.
This blob-buster microcoding has been a long time in the making–three and a half billion years, accoding to Craig Ventor, the originator of the mycoplasma laboratoriam project.
What an amazing age we live in.
However, not to oil on our parade or anything, but meanwhile down in the gulf…
Other, less controlled human experiments spew hydrocarbon muck irretrievably into the murky waters just south of Louisiana.
Maybe one day we’ll concoct a nano chromosome to corral a brand-new organism into eating up oil spills.
It will be a petri-dish organism, a Glass Chimera.