Venter says 'synthetic life coming'

 

The world may soon see the first examples of synthetic life, artificial organisms constructed in a laboratory. These will be unique organisms, not close copies of existing cells, said their creator Dr Craig Venter.

The controversial geneticist last night delivered a keynote address at Trinity College Dublin, part of the programme taking place in Dublin during the EuroScience Open Forum. Aptly, the title of his talks was “What is Life?”

Speaking before the actual lecture Dr Venter described his latest efforts to create synthetic life. He also talked about the “What is Life?” lectures which were originally given in 1943.

He and his laboratory in California were well on the way towards assembling a unique living organism, one unknown to exist anywhere else on the planet.

Two years ago he reported having built a living organism. “This was a proof of concept,” Dr Venter said. “It wasn’t identical to any existing cell but we wanted it to live.” For that reason it was modelled on another cell.

Things had progressed significantly however. His team are currently designing three different organisms, adding blocks of DNA that have been seen to be essential for sustaining life, he said. They do not know what design will produce a living organism so they decided to produce several.

Once designed these would then be built using DNA sequencing machines and the genetic package would then be popped into a hollowed out cell.

The work was made particularly difficult because geneticists still do not know the function of many of the genes seen in living organisms. “We don’t know all the first principles,” he said.

He had no doubt however that they would achive their goal. “Iam hoping it will happen this year.”

The research would deliver benefits for society, he said. World population was set to grow by two billion over the next decade. That was like adding an extra India to the world population, he said. “We are a species that are 100 per cent dependent on science.” Advances in technology could increase food production 10 to 100 fold.

Dr Venter’s use of the title What is Life? was not his own. It was originally used for a series of lectures given at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies by Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger in 1943. They were later published as a book.

Schrödinger was a physicist so it seemed unlikely that he would deliver a talk which looked at the nature of inheritance and how our genetic make-up was transferred from generation to generation.

The lectures went on however to inspire a generation of biologist, ultimately leading to the discovery of DNA and how it works.

Pauric Dempsey at the Royal Irish Academy proposed that Dr Venter be asked to reprise the talk, bringing it into the 21st Century. Dr Venter readily agreed and last night brought the themes raised by Schrödinger up to the very latest discoveries being made using genetic technologies.

“Schrödinger asked can life be defined using physics and chemistry and his answer was ’absolutely’,” Dr Venter said.

“The remarkable thing about what he did was he predicted what he called the code script before DNA was identified as the genetic material...before the genetic code had been revealed,” he said.

“It is an honour to be asked to update a wonderful inspiring book,” he said. It would have been “fantastic” to be able to sit down and discuss it with Schrödinger.