Exploring Human Potential

Syn 3.0 – A Model T Chassis For Synthetic Biology.

Posted on | March 29, 2016 | 1 Comment

minimal-cell-team-1200x929J.Craig Venter Institute team

Mike Magee

A decade or so ago, I had the opportunity to moderate an educational forum that featured Craig Venter. Venter was relatively fresh off of the competitive race to define the human genome, a scientific battle that ended in a truce with current NIH director, Francis Collins. After shaking hands, the two headed in opposite directions. Collins remained in governmental service, and Venters formed the Institute for Genomic Research which later became the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California.

Off that base, he consulted with a wide range of corporate entities focused on synthetic biology, that is, taking genetically modified microbes and pushing out a range of products from petroleum to pharmaceuticals. His efforts were financially underwritten by the likes of British Petroleum and Exxon in the hundreds of millions. Designer organisms have met multiple obstacles, not the least of which has been the plunging price of oil.

But at his core, Venter is as much an explorer as he is an entrepreneur. When I asked him, on behalf of the audience, “What percentage of the knowledge do we currently possess to take optimum care of human health?”, his response without delay was “Less than 1%.” He is committed to exploring the 99%.

What is his secret? Nobel Prize winner Sir Richard Roberts claims he’s a “managerial genius” with a history of holding together large, highly specialized and integrated teams for decades in pursuit of elusive endpoints. Twenty years ago, he and his co-workers began to wonder how many genes are actually necessary to create a living organism – one, as Venters says, that can “live, eat, and self-replicate.” Humans have 20,000 or so genes made of 3 billion individual building blocks. But it’s been known for some time that many of these wait on the sideline and are not an active part of the game of life. To get down to the simple essentials, you can either successively “edit out” genes of a existing organism and  see what happens, or create a brand new form of life, building it block by block.

Venters, with his commitment to synthetic biology, chose a middle road. As a model, he began with the 900 gene M. mycoides, a microbe that lives in sheep. Through a series of experiments over a number of years, they were able to identify 428 of these as non-essential for life of the microbe. They then created a brand new organism with just 473 genes and roughly a half million building blocks, and booted it up. the lifeform, dubbed JCVI-syn3.0 or Syn3.0 for short, not only came to life but, ate, grew and replicated in the specialized environment Venters lab had created.

Still, the team, in its publication, was quick to dampen expectations. First, the new creature needs the specialized environment to survive. Second, of the necessary 428 genes, the scientists have no idea what 149 of those genes (roughly 1/3) do, and why they are essential for life. Obviously, part of the goal is to explore those unknown functions, and in the process better understand the workings and evolutionary history of living cells.

But in addition, as it turns out, size matters when it comes to synthetic biology. And bigger is not better. As with the Model T, it pays to have a simple chassis with few moving parts, high reliability, and efficient productivity. Most scientists this week agreed that “minimal-DNA microbes” have a bright future that will likely include, with the help of selectively added genes, production of a wide range of products. For Venter and his colleagues, their “designer organism”, like other micro-tools embraced in Cambridge, Mass, or Silicon Valley, will eventually be a ubiquitous presence on biologic product lines everywhere. 


One Response to “Syn 3.0 – A Model T Chassis For Synthetic Biology.”

  1. Syn 3.0 – A Model T Chassis For Synthetic Biology. – Donald M. Hayes Blog
    March 29th, 2016 @ 4:48 pm

    […] post Syn 3.0 – A Model T Chassis For Synthetic Biology. appeared first on […]

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