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:
- Made the complete DNA of a certain kind of bacteria
- Hollowed out the DNA from a different bacterium
- 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
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.