For the past few years, Craig Venter, the human genome pioneer, has been trying to build an organism from scratch. While Venter is no shrinking wallflower (see, for example, a recent interview in Newsweek), he has been keeping his synthetic-life cards pretty close to his vest. I spoke to Venter in 2003, shortly after he announced the project, and he provided some basic details which I wrote up in a news article in the journal Science (I've archived it here). I was startled to find my article being cited in scientific papers about synthetic biology, but one scientist (Eugene Koonin of NIH) told me that there was no scientific paper he could cite. But now it seems that Venter is turning over one or two of his cards. Last night I got an email from Jim Thomson, a researcher at the environmental group Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group for short). His group had dug up a patent application that Venter's group has filed for their synthetic life project. You can read the patent application here. The application is based on the J. Craig Venter Institute's ongoing efforts to find the fewest number of genes essential for life. They started the project by selecting a microbe, Mycoplasma genitalium, that has only has 482 genes. They then introduced crippling mutations into each gene to figure out which ones are dispensable and which can't be done without. In January last year they reported that 382 were essential. In the patent, the number drops to 381. As the application explains, it would be theoretically possible to synthesize a 381-gene genome and plug it into a genome-free cell, and--voila--boot up a new organism. This artificial genome could be engineered so that it can easily accept other genes to carry out new functions--such as producing cheap hydrogen fuel. There's no evidence in the patent that Venter has actually booted up a synthetic organism, but it's worth bearing in mind that the patent was filed in October and is only now coming available. So at this point, Venter is claiming a patent for something he has yet to build. Another bit of murkiness (any patent lawyers out there?) is whether this patent only covers genes from M. genitalium, or covers any set of genes that are essential for any other species (or at least any subset of them). A lot of the essential genes in M. genitalium are probably relatives of essential genes in other species. Despite the hypothetical nature of the patent, it does seem to mark a turning point. In the past, scientists have patented genetically modified organisms and individual genes. But now Venter is patenting an entire synthetic organism. ETC says it is going to challenge the patent on the basis that it is contrary to public morality and safety. They claim that the public hasn't had enough time to debate the ethics of Venter's plan. These are definitely serious issues that need to be aired out as much as possible. And for some reason synthetic biology is not getting the careful scrutiny that stem cells are, despite the equally great hope and concern they inspire. So ETC is right on this score. But in the press release they've issued about Venter's patent, they've thrown a few too many red herrings into tank. "For the first time, God has competition," says ETC's Pat Mooney. Please. I've been nosing around in the history of genetic engineering for my upcoming book about E. coli, and remarks like Mooney's give me a fierce sense of deja vu. In the early 1970s E. coli was the first microbe into which scientists inserted genes from another species. Much of the insulin diabetics use comes today from vast tanks of engineered E. coli. There was plenty of God-talk back then, with people claiming some sacred barrier had been breached. But no one has ever explained clearly why this barrier has any real biological or theological meaning. Back in the day, people also warned of the grave dangers of genetically engineered E. coli, and ETC uses the same language. But rather than seriously considering the potential risks, they seem to be playing on the fear of the unknown. In the press release, Thomas tries to downplay the potential benefit of Venter's beast and play up its potential harm.
"It's purely speculation and hype that syns [synthetic living organisms] will be used to ameliorate climate change by producing cheap ethanol or hydrogen," said Jim Thomas. "The same minimal microbe could be harnessed to build a virulent pathogen that could pose grave threats to people and the planet," he said.
I don't see how you can try to get people to ignore the benefits by calling them speculation and then turn around and get people scared about risks that are, at this point, speculation. In the thirty years that genetic engineering has existed, has anyone been killed by a genetically engineered microbe? When I interviewed synthetic biologist Jay Keasling for Discover last year, he put it bluntly: "If I wanted to do evil and do harm, I probably would not choose biology to do it. It's damn complicated." On the other hand, scientists are already making progress in producing ethanol from engineered E. coli and other microbes, so it doesn't make any sense to call Venter's proposal nothing but hype. Nor does the fact that BP is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into synthetic biology as a way to make new sources of fuel. ETC does raise a very interesting point, though. Venter is taking a very different approach to synthetic biology than many others in the community. He's locking down patents. ETC is right in suggesting Venter might become "Microbesoft"--controlling operating system for anyone who wants to build an organism from scratch. Other researchers, such as Keasling, are promoting a different way of doing synthetic biology--what they call open source biology. Scientists and their students are amassing an open inventory of parts that anyone can use to design organisms of their own. And it's open source biology, these researchers argue, that will provide the best protection against any evil uses of synthetic biology. Instead of being hidden behind patents, [strike]the information about[/strike] these parts would be available to everyone, and collectively solutions could be found. As this debate starts to unfold, I think open source biology will keep it from becoming nothing but deja vu.