[ExI] DNA pwned by Venter

Amara Graps amara at amara.com
Wed Jun 20 15:02:45 UTC 2007

See also this excellent (free content) story in The Economist:


reproduced below:

Artificial life

Patent pending
Jun 14th 2007
 From The Economist print edition

Move over Dolly. Synthia is on her way

YOU have to hand it to Craig Venter, he is not someone who thinks small.
The latest adventure of the man who was the first to sequence the genome
of a living organism (three weeks after his grant request to do so was
rejected on the grounds it was impossible), the first to publish the
genome of an identifiable human being (himself) and the first to
conceive the idea of sequencing the genome of an entire ecosystem (and
to enjoy a nice cruise across the Pacific Ocean in his yacht while he
did so) is curiously reminiscent of the incident that made him a
controversial figure in the first place. That was when, 16 years ago, he
attempted to patent parts of several hundred genes- the first time anyone
had tried to take out a patent on more than one gene at a time.

This time, he is proposing to patent not merely a few genes, but life
itself. Not all of life, of course. At least, not yet. Rather, he has
applied for a patent on the synthetic bacterium that he and his
colleagues Clyde Hutchison and Hamilton Smith have been working on for
the past few years.

The patent application itself was filed without fanfare some eight
months ago. But it was only at the end of May that the slowly grinding
bureaucracy of America's patent office got round to publishing it. The
central claim is to what Dr Venter calls the "minimal bacterial genome".
This is a list of the 381 genes he thinks are needed to keep an organism
alive. The list has been assembled by taking the organism he first
sequenced, Mycoplasma genitalium, and knocking out each of its 470 genes
to see which ones it can manage without. The theory- and the claim made
by the patent- is that by synthesising a string of DNA that has all 381
of these genes, and then putting it inside a "ghost cell" consisting of
a cell membrane, along with the bits and pieces of molecular machinery
that are needed to read genes and translate them into proteins, an
artificial organism will have been created.

Given that the ghost cell will be an enucleated natural bacterium rather
than a synthetic structure in its own right, the new bug will not be a
completely man-made creature. Nevertheless, if the three researchers can
pull it off, they will have achieved an impressive piece of genetic
engineering- or, rather, of synthetic biology as this high end of the
field is now usually called. And there is every reason to believe that
they will be able to pull it off. In 2003 the same team, working then as
now at Dr Venter's research institute in Rockville, Maryland, were the
first to produce a truly viable synthetic virus. And techniques have
moved on since then.

The patent does not claim that an organism based on the minimal
bacterial genome has yet been made- and it hasn't. It is more a question
of the Venter Institute getting its retaliations in first. Nevertheless,
the mere filing of the patent has upset some people. Among the
dischuffed is ETC Group, a Canadian bioethics organisation whose
eagle-eyed spotters noticed the publication of patent 20070122826 last
week. They have asked Dr Venter to withdraw the patent- and, on the
assumption that he will not, have also asked the patent office to reject
it on the grounds that it is contrary to public morality and safety.

ETC's objections seem twofold, and also slightly contradictory. One
objection is that the patent's claims are too widely drawn. It attempts,
for example, to reserve the right to any method of hydrogen or ethanol
production that uses such an organism. (Dr Venter thinks synthetic
biology is going to be important as a way of making fuels.) It also,
bizarrely, claims an interest in the genes the three researchers have
identified as non-essential, as well as the essential ones.

To the extent that sweeping claims may stifle innovation, these are
certainly things that need to be considered. However, the more profound
objection ETC has seems to be based on the idea that there are areas
where mankind should not meddle. As Pat Mooney, the group's boss, put
it, "For the first time, God has competition." No doubt Dr Venter,
hardly famous as a shrinking violet, will be amused by the comparison.

ETC's argument has some force. Synthetic biology is developing fast and
it is easy to see it being used out of malice. That said, one of the
advantages of a minimal genome is that the genes removed, while not
essential for survival, are essential for robustness. A bug relying on
such a genome could not possibly live in the wild if it accidentally
escaped. Also, the biologists in the field are as concerned as anybody
that the subject develops safely. They have been asking for regulation
rather than resisting it, and have already established codes of conduct
to try to stop the malicious synthesis of pathogens.

Nevertheless, ETC is hoping to provoke a debate. And to give people a
name to hang on to in that debate it suggests nicknaming Mycoplasma
laboratorium, as the application calls the putative invention, as
"Synthia". The organisation hopes this name will stick in the popular
consciousness in the way that Ian Wilmutt's cloned sheep Dolly did.
Indeed, it is rather a good name. Given the affection that Dolly
attracted once the shock of her existence had been absorbed, perhaps Dr
Venter- himself no slouch at publicity-will adopt it.


Amara Graps, PhD      www.amara.com
Associate Research Scientist, Planetary Science Institute (PSI), Tucson
INAF Istituto di Fisica dello Spazio Interplanetario (IFSI), Roma, Italia

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