Sometimes new discoveries in genetics rival some of the best plots in science fiction. Scientists are now able to create an organism with completely artificial DNA capable of life and self-replication. In the spring of 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) synthesized the whole genome (a single chromosome of about a million base pairs) of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides and transplanted it into recipient cells of a closely related species, M. capricolum. The transplanted, computer-generated DNA was transcribed into mRNA, which encoded proteins, which enabled division into new cells. The artificial DNA was modified from the natural genome of M. mycoides to remove some pathogenic genes in case the bacteria made their way out of the lab (M. mycoides causes infection in goats) and also to include genetic "watermarks". The watermarks are added DNA sequences that have no function for the bacteria but after decoding they translate into various messages, including the names of authors and contributors, a web address, and some meaningful quotes such as "to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life" (James Joyce).
As Dr. Venter himself said at a press conference, this is "the first self-replicating species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer." The other parent or ancestor was the closely related species whose cells were used to carry the synthetic DNA. It is important to interpret the results of this research with care – while the cell and all its machinery were first generated naturally by bacteria, the inserted manmade DNA is capable of taking over and running these cells. But no living organism was created from scratch, and no new life form was generated.
However, the potential of these findings is mind-blowing. The group hopes in the near future to produce another synthetic cell carrying only the essential genes for life. From there, other genes with specific functions can be added on: for example, you could "make" cells that produce biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and various other commercial products.
The making of this synthetic cell raises various issues. Could the creation of synthetic species pose a danger to our environment? How much can we manipulate life? Who can do it and for what purpose? The publication of these research findings immediately spurred concern from environmental groups, re-heated debates over the morality of genetic engineering, and led the government to request the bioethics committee to study in depth the implications of synthetic biology. These issues are unlikely to be solved easily, and discussions will probably continue for many years to come. Keep up with the news for the next episode of the synthetic cell, because current research can be just as exciting as some of the best sci-fi series (if not more so)!