Pursuing Synthetic Life, Dazzled by Reality

Nathalie Angier in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_1When scientists announced on Jan. 24 that they had reconstituted the complete set of genes for a microbe using just a few bottles of chemicals, the feat was hailed as a kind of shining Nike moment in the field of synthetic biology, the attempt to piece together living organisms from inert scratch.

Reporting in the journal Science, Dr. J. Craig Venter and his colleagues at the J. Craig Venter Institute said they had fabricated the entire DNA chain of a microbial parasite called Mycoplasma genitalium, exceeding previous records of sustained DNA synthesis by some 18-fold. Any day now, the researchers say, they will pop that manufactured mortal coil into a cellular shell, where the genomic code will “boot up,” as Dr. Venter puts it, and the entire construct will begin acting like a natural-born M. genitalium — minus the capacity, the researchers promise, to infect the delicate tissues that explain the parasite’s surname.

More here.