26 January 2008

A milestone for synthetic biology

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland announced that they have synthesized the genome of a bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium.

This is a symbolic milestone for DNA synthesis techniques because Mycoplasma genitalium is one of the simplest known living organisms (a little over 500,000 base pairs). The synthesized DNA is not capable of reproducing until scientists can synthesize a cell in which the DNA is viable.

Read the Wired News article or the National Geographic article.

It's believed that the techniques that the researchers used are already nearing their limits. E. coli bacteria were used to synthesize the DNA, but the bacteria could not produce DNA segments of more than a quarter of the length of what was needed. So yeast were used to stitch the pieces together to create the final result. Wired calls it "the end of the beginning for biological engineering": the first point where scalable and automatic DNA synthesis is becoming necessary. In electrical engineering terms, we need to move on from circuits wired by hand before we can make a PC.

Last week, I attended a talk in which Tom Knight described the next steps for synthetic organisms. Researchers are working on "refactoring" the code of simple organisms so that the functions of genes can be better understood. No computer scientist will be surprised that billions of years of evolution (with no code reviews, a huge space premium, and tight ship deadlines) has led to a bunch of ugly hacks.

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