Manmade DNA Powers a Bacterium

Small Steps for Science, Big Step for Mankind
Science fiction often has stories about how mad scientists bring things to life in their labs. Now, in a new study, a group of scientists have taken another baby step towards making this a reality. (Well maybe not the mad scientist part"Š) These scientists didn't create new life from nothing though. No mere mortal can yet do that. But what they did was impressive enough. They:
  1. Made the complete DNA of a certain kind of bacteria
  2. Hollowed out the DNA from a different bacterium
  3. Combined the two
They now had a bacterium that was running on a different set of DNA instructions than the one it was "born" with. This new bacterium was able to make copies of itself and it had the properties its new DNA told it to. Essentially a new bacterium was born that hadn't been seen before. This is different from all of the cloning that has been going on since Dolly. Cloning involves taking natural DNA from one organism and putting it into the egg of another. The difference here is that the scientists made the DNA from scratch in the lab. Impressive but this still isn't Genesis sort of stuff. Think of this experiment like reprogramming an already built computer.

Scientists were able to
accurately make all of this
DNA and stuff it back into
a bacterium.
The researchers didn't create a new programming language or build a new kind of computer from scratch. They merely reprogrammed it so it can do things it couldn't before or so that it does them in different ways. Think adding a suite of video games to a computer or turning a PC into a Mac. While this is very cool, it also isn't as if scientists haven't tinkered with a bacterium's DNA before. They have. Scientists have been manipulating DNA in bacteria for 30 or 40 years now. And many of these bacteria are brand new creations. What is impressive here is the scale of the operation. And what it means for the future. The researchers didn't just add a new function or two to the bacterium. They swapped out all of the old instructions and replaced it with a brand new set they made in a lab. These new instructions were over one million A's, G's, C's and T's strung together in an exact order. Now that they've done this, they can do it again. They can make a whole new set of instructions and see what happens. Or just make a few changes here and there. This gets to the heart of why this experiment is important -- because of what it will allow scientists to do and learn in the future. These researchers have shown that something like this can be done. Now they can get to work and see what this new tool can do for them. It will someday allow for the creation of new living organisms that can do useful things for people. Perhaps scientists will be able to create bacteria that can eat oil or toxic waste, make hydrogen from agricultural waste, create vaccines, etc. This won't happen soon but it will happen sooner than it would without these new techniques. These sorts of life forms would be difficult, expensive, and time consuming to create the old way. Not so with this new technology. It won't be a walk in the park but it will be much easier especially as the price of making DNA in a lab goes down. And on the way towards creating new bacteria, scientists will learn a lot about how all the instructions in DNA work together. Scientists have a very incomplete understanding of this now. By being able to change many things at once, they should be able to gain insight into how genomes work. What won't happen in the near term is creating and using new human DNA to run humans. Or dogs or lizards or anything else too complicated. Higher life forms like these are still too complex to be manipulated by this technology. At least for now.
A Big Deal

More like reprogramming
a computer than
creating life.
Even though these experiments only amount to the reprogramming of a new bacterium, their importance should not be underestimated. They open up a whole set of possible experiments that couldn't be done before. Some are useful. Being able to change many genes at once means that bacteria can be shaped in big ways instead of just a few gradual changes at a time. So changing 10 or 20 or 100 genes won't take 10 or 20 or 100 sets of experiments, it'll just take one. And if these changes don't work like the scientists want them to, they can quickly change one part of the experiment without having to start over. This will save an incredible amount of time. In fact, when making DNA gets a lot cheaper, scientists will be able to make lots of permutations at once. They'll be able to make all the possible changes in twenty genes and quickly figure out which ones are useful. This will greatly speed up research. But this sort of research is not without risk. In the wrong hands, some harmful virus or bacterium could be made. In other words, someone could construct some sort of biological weapon. Right now this is unlikely because these experiments are still too hard to do. But as making DNA gets cheaper and cheaper, more and more people will be able to do these kinds of experiments. And create killer viruses and bacteria. A panel that has been investigating the ramifications of this sort of technology has come up with a few ways to minimize the risks (see link below). But no one will be able to completely eliminate them. We need to hope that countermeasures can be made as quickly as the new viruses and bacteria. And there is a good chance that this will be the case. Scientists will be able to quickly read the DNA of the new organism and possibly be able to figure out why is so deadly. Once they know why something is deadly, they should be able to come up with ways to deal with it. Hopefully in time.

More Information

Just the Beginning

Friend or foe?
Important science is often founded on a Eureka moment. Some discovery like finding little RNAs that control how genes work or that DNA isn't as stable as scientists thought can totally change how scientists think about life. But as this case shows, not all important science is based on some new found principle. The science here is really just the gradual overcoming of a number of small technical obstacles. There is no new scientific principle here"Šit is just figuring out how to make really big pieces of DNA and how to stick it into a bacterium. In fact, it was really just figuring out how to accurately make pieces of DNA thousands of bases long. And then how to stick them together. (Click here to learn more.) Again, just because this isn't Eureka science, it shouldn't be underestimated. The human genome project was the same sort of thing. And science has learned an incredible amount from that bit of plodding! So these experiments provide the tools for new Eureka moments. They usher in an era of exciting times.