Friday, January 25, 2008

Venter's Magic: Synthetic Genomics

Something that probably won't register much more than a blip in the ethanol news but will have serious impact occurred today when J. Craig Venter, the man who was the first to fully map the human genome by mapping his own, announced that his lab had established a completely synthetic genome that could potentially sustain life. Their lab's goal is to be able to build a genome, (a long string of DNA that makes up genes capable of supporting life), capable of supporting the most basic functions of a living cell. Although some question the ultimate goal of the study and claim that it is some kind of mad-scientist's quest to develop the power to control life, the more probable goal is something that could impact the world of biofuels in the years to come.
Building a synthetic genome means that a lab would know which basic set of genes, "housekeeping genes," are needed to support life and would then be able to insert one or two genes needed, say, to produce ethanol, or butanol, or hydrocarbons. What you would have created is a bacteria cell with a genome created in a lab with the sole purpose being to live and produce the desired product. This is the kind of research going on at J. Craig Venter's lab, Synthetic Genomics.
The announcement today was the discovery that they had successfully built a very small synthetic genome, (582,970 'base pairs' or pieces of DNA), and were able to place the genome into the bacteria that the synthetic genome was modeled after, mycoplasma genitalia. Although this is a great step forward and a huge jump in the number of base pairs connected synthetically, by comparing it to the number of base pairs in the human genome, (3.1 billion representing approximately 50,000 genes), it's easy to see that they are nowhere near having the capability to produce extensive genomes. This might not be a problem if they are only trying to make a synthetic genome with the fewest number of required genes (which is currently unknown so the exact size would be hard to guess at). Also, they inserted the synthetic genome into a bacteria they modeled the DNA off of, AND the bacteria still had its original genome. Let me repeat that, they do not know how to remove the original DNA, replace it with the synthetic genome, and then get the bacteria to 'reboot' with the new DNA. They are only able to get the host to live with its old genome and then function with the new synthetic DNA.
So what impact is this science having right now? Well, they are making definitive progress towards their goal; a goal that could potentially have industry altering effects from biofuels to medicine production to understanding the essential components of our DNA in a more extensive way. Right now, the breakthrough is still on the horizon, but it has definite potential for ethanol production and the goal may be closer than we think.

Article in the Chicago Tribune on Venter's announcement:,1,6501125.story

Website for Synthetic Genomics:

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