For some years, scientists have felt that it should be possible to create new life forms "from scratch," perhaps by splicing together genes drawn from different sources to create a new functioning genome, perhaps by slowly combining genes synthetically into one or more functioning chromosomes, or perhaps by recombining many different genetic elements to see if a functional genome could be produced. Now, the quiet backwater of microbiology is about to move center stage in the genomics revolution.
Early work is already bearing fruit. A team at SUNY Stony Brook created an artificial polio type virus last year, (1) and this past fall Craig Venter announced that his Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, with the generous support of the Department of Energy, had succeeded in the creation of a bacterial virus. What was interesting about Venter's announcement is that he and his team have developed a technique for the rapid recombination and transfer of many genes, thereby making the synthesis of new life forms less an experiment and more a form of manufacture.
Making an artificial virus from scratch is not only an impressive feat, it is also an important step in the radical transformation of genetic engineering. Today scientists can "synthesize" a small genome to create a virus. Soon they will move to larger genomes, and eventually to bacteria and possibly even to new genomes for larger animals and plants. It is conceivable that human beings will some day contain artificially synthesized chromosomes in their cells. Synthetic genomics may one day be one of the key spin-offs of the genomic revolution.
Right now, genetic engineering involves adding a small number of genes, often one at a time, to a plant or animal. The technique used by Venter's team makes it possible to design and create thousands of genes at once and transfer them. The difference in power between current genetic engineering and this emerging technology is the difference between monks painstakingly hand painting one book at a time and a printing press churning them out by the thousands.
The potential benefits of the technology are enormous. Synthetic genomics could provide us with microbes that have the ability to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Genetically engineered bacteria could some day clean up pollutants within factories or eat radioactive waste. Gene therapy that uses "good" viruses to attack cancers and infections caused by "nasty" viruses and bacteria will likely take a giant leap forward when this technology is fully developed.
There are, however, some important questions to ask about synthetic genome technology. …