Designer DNA Dinged

Who says scientists and writers can’t play God? My sister recently alerted me to a story in which science and literature intersect in a very bizarre way. It’s weird enough that I thought I’d pass it on.

A little less than a year ago, maverick geneticist (and yacht owner) Craig Venter rocked the world (again) by announcing that he had created synthetic life. His team had developed a bacterial-like genome from DNA made in the laboratory.

First, they ordered DNA pieces 1,000 units in length from a company called Blue Heron that specializes in synthesizing DNA. Then they used some helpful yeasts to weave it together (the first microbial sweatshop?). Finally, they put this new synthetic genome into a cell whose genetic material had been removed. The new DNA took over the cell and promptly started manufacturing its own proteins, rather than the proteins the original cell would have made. Venter claimed he had created synthetic life.

The synthetic genome itself includes some 1,080,000 bases, which is a lot of information. In every genome, there are so-called “junk” portions of the DNA that don’t make proteins or do anything useful for the cell (as far as we know). In Venter’s synthetic genome, he made his own version of the “junk” section, creating special “genetic watermarks” that could be used to distinguish the synthetic cell and all its descendents from naturally-occurring bacteria. Basically (pardon the pun) what they did was to come up with a code that uses the four nucleic acids C,G,A, and T to encode all the letters of the alphabet and the numbers. (This would be a good puzzle for my brother Dave, who is always on the lookout for obscure codes. If he cracks it, I’ll let him post it on this blog.)

This code itself is encoded in the genetic watermarks, along with a URL that anyone who deciphers the code can e-mail, the names of the 46 authors and other key contributors and three quotations:

“TO LIVE, TO ERR, TO FALL, TO TRIUMPH, TO RECREATE LIFE OUT OF LIFE.” – from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce;

“SEE THINGS NOT AS THEY ARE, BUT AS THEY MIGHT BE.”-A quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer in the book American Prometheus; and

“WHAT I CANNOT BUILD, I CANNOT UNDERSTAND.” – a quote attributed to physicist Richard Feynman.

The news of this marvelous and ethically mindblowing feat reverberated around the world. Obama convened the White House Bioethics Commission, asking them to give him a report. The Vatican issued a press release, calling it an “interesting result” but said the scientists had not created life, just “replaced one of its motors.” (Which one? the outboard?) Venter has entered into an agreement with Exxon to create synthetic algae that will fix carbon dioxide and turn it into usable fuel. Now that would be a win-win, wouldn’t it?

In an interesting twist, Venter revealed in a conference last month that the James Joyce estate had sent him a “cease and desist” letter because he hadn’t asked permission to use the quote. Venter claimed fair use as stipulated in the US Copyright law. The Joyce estate, of which Joyce’s only living descendent Stephen is the executor, is notoriously aggressive with respect to copyright. In 2004 it threatened to sue the Irish government if there were any public readings of Joyce’s work at the 100th anniversary Bloomsbury celebration of the author.

This one might be worth following. The synthetic critter cost Venter upwards of $40 million to make. If The Joyce estate sues, will Venter have to pay royalties on each appearance of the quote? Think about how fast these things will reproduce! Bacterial growth is the classic exponential growth example. If you start with just one bacterium, and it doubles every hour, by the end of the day you will have 16,777,216 bacteria! This could be the windfall Stephen has been waiting for!!

Remember, though, once the cell is out there and reproducing, thanks to evolution, it will mutate. These little snippets of text will morph fairly quickly into something slightly different, and all bets will be off. Unless…

As one person posted in a comment to Carl Zimmer’s blog describing the news,

“If they wait long enough, maybe it will mutate into “Finnegan’s Wake.”

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