When they developed a synthetic cell that can replicate itself, scientists with the J Craig Venter Institute added “watermarks”. These were DNA parts that allowed researchers to use the “alphabet” of the genes and proteins to spell out words in English. The institute explained these watermarks as “an essential means to prove that the genome is synthetic and not native, and to identify the laboratory of origin.”
The watermarks included whole phrases. Among them were quotations from author James Joyce, Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman and a quote from American Prometheus, a biography of the father of the atom bomb J Robert Oppenheimer.
The researchers couldn’t resist coding their own names on to the DNA of their microscopic creation. So CRAIGVENTER and HAMSMITH are among the genetic watermarks.. And one of the names that will live on and on, as long as the synthetic bacteria continues to replicate, is that of institute staff scientist Radha Krishnakumar.
Krishnakumar, who is originally from India and lived in Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai, laughed about this curious honour. “It’s pretty cool. There’s a microbe out there that has my name in it.”
Krishnakumar was one of three scientists of Indian origin at the project. The others were Sanjay Vashee, who grew up in Africa, and Prashanth Parmar, an Indian-American.
Once the researchers were convinced their venture had been successful, it was “time for champagne and celebration,” says Krishnakumar. The celebrations haven’t quite stopped, even though the formal announcement of their path-breaking experiment was announced on Thursday. But even by Friday the institute’s crew were starting to drift back to the laboratory. “Back to the grind. Next week should be back to normal,” Krishnakumar said.
That depends on what one defines as “normal”. After all, the vast potential of the microbe, unofficially being dubbed Synthia by the media, has yet to be mined.
John Glass, a senior scientist at the institute’s Synthetic Biology Group, gave some examples of how the process could be used in the future: “This technology first enables us to understand the basic principles of cellular life and use those to design an organism that will be able to do remarkable things.” He outlined some of the “remarkable” applications that were in the pipeline. Among them:
A quicker way to manufacture the influenza virus vaccine
A biofuel-making algae cell that takes carbon dioxide and sunlight and converts it into sugar and diesel
Hundreds of new antibiotics
Glass spoke of the great potential in medicine. There were thousands of clusters of genes that produce antibiotics. There is a chance these genes also have the capacity, presently untapped, to produce new antibiotics. The team could attempt to induce these to make such new medicines. By discovering chemicals and molecules, there were avenues to pursue anti-cancer treatments.
“These are a near-term opportunities,” Glass said, meaning in the next two or three years. Of course, even after a definite discovery the entire process of clinical trials and federal government clearances could mean a new medicine could take nearly a decade to enter the market.
While there have been ethical and religious critics of the creation of “new life”, Glass said their venture had a “huge upside”. The project has been vetted by an independent panel of bioethicists, religious leaders, environmentalists and politicians since the late 1990s (the project commenced in 1995). “The potential for great benefits to humans far outweigh people trying to use it for nefarious purposes or for accidental things to happen that have bad consequences,” he said.
An official release noted that the “JCVI’s policy team, along with the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for a 20-month study that explored the risks and benefits of this emerging technology, as well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism.”
For the scientists involved, the focus for now is working on developing applications.
Craig Venter is the head of the institute that bears his name. But many see him as more: that he is the closest thing to a visionary that genomics has. He was a pioneer when it came to sequencing the human genome. Now he has applied his mastery of genetic technology to producing a tangible, squirming breakthrough in the field.
Krishnakumar, who worked for a while at the University of Madras and joined the JCVI in August 2006 for post-doctoral work, was attracted to the institute in part because of its founder.
Venter is extremely invested in his work. The majority of the funding for the Synthia project came from his own firm, Synthetic Genomics. And in 2007, he also led a team that published the first-ever complete genome of an individual.
Fittingly enough, the genome was that of Venter himself.