If Craig Venter's research leads to engineering new forms of life, mankind has hope for the future
The poet Joyce Kilmer wrote, "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree". New research by Craig Venter, one of the main scientists behind the human genome sequencing project, may change all that. His latest research, published in Science, has succeeded in making a new form of life in the laboratory. The hope is that this "synthetic life" will eventually lead to custom-made organisms engineered to tackle the world's woes.
Engineering living organisms isn't new. Scientists have been genetically modifying microbes, plants and animals for decades. GM crops are grown on more than 2bn acres of the world's surface. But this is a kind of genetic tinkering. What Venter and many other scientists envisage is far more revolutionary: engineering entirely new forms of life.
Synthetic life enthusiasts claim that we need new organisms to do the tasks that the existing ones are not so good at. For instance, farmers around the world are increasingly growing biofuel crops. But these crops take up land that would otherwise be used to grow food, which is at least partly why grain prices have soared. There are already efforts to exploit other resources, such as sewage or plant waste. But natural organisms have their own agenda: they want to produce descendants rather than ethanol, so aren't so efficient at making fuel.
Venter is a pioneer of genome mining: excavating organisms living in exotic environments for novel genes. Some of these genes may be perfectly evolved for synthetic biology applications, such as biofuel production. But useful genes are scattered across hundreds of species, some of which can't be grown in the laboratory. What Venter and other scientists want to do is bring these genes together in an easy-to-grow custom-engineered organism.
Several years ago Venter began this challenge by making a minimal cell to provide a kind of chassis capable of bolting on lots of different synthetic biology tools. His latest research has taken the genome of one bacterium, modified it inside a yeast cell and then inserted it into the cell of a related bacterium to create an entirely new organism. The next step will be to add genes and pathways to make biofuel or other products.
Biofuels aren't the only target of synthetic biology. Scientists at the University of Manchester are trying to engineer bacteria to make novel antibiotics. Scientists are also seeking to make anti-cancer drugs, degrade harmful pollutants or produce valuable nutrients. Other scientists envisage more blue-sky projects such as engineering microbes to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or even to terraform Mars.
But why stop with microbes? It will soon be possible to make entirely novel forms of plants or animals (including man). New cereal crop plants might fix their own nitrogen, eliminating the need for costly fertiliser. Or, how about custom-made insects that seek out and kill locusts or malarial mosquitoes?