A synthetic cell – what qualifies?

science-art.com J. Craig Ventor‘s name comes up again as The Daily Galaxy today posts an article (“Earth’s 1st Non-Biological Self-Replicating Species” (link)) about the achievement of Dr. Ventor in may last year, when he synthesized an entire bacterial genome and inserted it into a cell. The article calls this a “non-biological self-replicating species”, but I want to question that interpretation. Surely the genome is fully synthetic, and it does replicate, but only because it is inserted into a cell, which is still very biological indeeed. Ken Shirriff and I seem to agree on this point, when he states on his blog:

I wouldn’t exactly call it synthetic life though, since it does require an existing cell to get going. (link)

On the other hand, we are indeed talking about a cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome, which is quite an achievement, and should not be underestimated.

The project as described on the home page of the J. Craig Ventor Institute (link) is called: “First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell”. It is a twist of words to call it a “Synthetic Bacterial Cell” since interpretations allow for an understanding where either everything about it is synthetic or human-made, or where all of the control mechanisms are synthetic.

The project visually:

Ultimately this project’s discoveries might help us with our earth problems of sustainability. Using synthetic biology to “produce clean energy, bio-chemicals and other high value products directly from carbon dioxide, plant biomass and coal.” (link to syntheticgenomics)

In comparison research is carried out at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology (link) at the University of Southern Denmark, to create life from scratch, in a manner entirely different from the ones we know to have happened in nature. Their systemic design principle is to “minimize the structures for the required cooperative functionalities” (link), meaning that they want to create a living thing (a protocell) with the least possible complexity.

Using a consensus definition of minimal life, consisting of only three points, FLiNT researchers will need:

  1. A control mechanism telling the protocell how to proceed. Usually a cell gets this information via it’s genes.
  2. The ability to transform energy, usually called the metabolism. Hereby allowing for growth in a suiting environment, replication and possibly evolution.
  3. A container, so that the life form will have a specific localization

The goal of simplification means that they use a different kind of localization, than we’re used to from the cell. The metabolic and genetic complexes operate at the externA cellal interface of a (fatty acid) lipid or (oil) droplet aggregate, and not on the inside of a cell membrane. Creating these protocells with functionally much simpler than modern biological cells, will allow for containers as small as a few nanometers in diameter. A typical cell is around 10 micrometers (1 micrometer = 0,001 mm = 1*10^-3 mm,  1 nanometer = 0,000001 mm = 1*10^-6 mm).


To follow FLiNT’s progress follow publications here

Above: Visit from National Geographic Channel at FLiNT

About Sif S. Stewart-Ferrer

Passion for knowledge - especially the philosophy of natural science. BA in Philosophy from the University of Southern Denmark. Masters Student in Anthropology at Aarhus University, Denmark. Involvements include the Initiative for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) in the Living Technology branch, being an Honors Student at Center for Fundamental Living Technology (FLinT, www.flint.sdu.dk) and being part of the 2010 Team:SDU-Denmark in the international MIT competition in synthetic biology known by the name of iGEM (www.igem.org). Interests include philosophy (the philosophy of science and environmental ethics), mycology, martial arts (wing chun and aikido), anthropology (anthropocene, Nepal), computer games and outdoor life.
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