Artificial life forms

Written December, 2014

Research on artificial life forms is an area of synthetic biology focused on custom-building life forms to address specific purposes. In 2010, Craig Venter and colleagues announced the first synthetic life form, created from an existing organism by introducing synthetic DNA. Since then, researchers at Scripps, NYU, and Cambridge have made various breakthroughs including creating an organism with an expanded artificial genetic code in its DNA, insert a man-made, inserting custom-built chromosomes into brewer’s yeast that are passed down to offspring, and creating the world’s first enzymes made from artificial genetic material. But does all of this research live up to the “creating new life” hype?

Synthetic biology

Synthetic life allows scientists to study the origins of life by building it rather than breaking it down, but this technique blurs the line between life and machines, and scientists foresee the ability to program organisms. The ethical and policy issues surrounding innovations in synthetic biology renew concerns raised previously with other biological breakthroughs and include safety issues and risk factors connected with releasing artificial life forms into the environment. Making artificial life forms has been deemed “playing God” because it allows individuals to create life that does not exist naturally. Gene patents have been a concern for several years now and synthetic organisms suggest a new dimension of this policy issue.  While customized organisms may one day cure cancer, they may also be used as biological weapons. Read on for some background on the science and the ethical issues as well as the original cutting-edge research:

Scientific background

Rewiring Life: Learning About Synthetic Biology In Debates, Videos, and Comic Books (Carl Zimmer, via Download the Universe)
Zimmer looks at the Stanford University research on implanting transistor-like bundles of genes into E. coli, as well as the history of synthetic biology that led up to this remarkable feat. He also reflects on ways to help young people become both excited and wise about these new kinds of technology.

Synthetic Biology: How Best to Build a Cell (Nature)
An array of experts experts weigh in on the biggest obstacles in synthetic biology and what it will take to overcome them.

Ethical issues


New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies(Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues)
In response to Venter’s 2010 research in synthetic biology, President Obama tasked the Commission with identifying appropriate ethical boundaries to maximize public benefits and minimize risks.

Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology (Hasting Center)
Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, this project was carried out by an interdisciplinary working group including synthetic biologists, philosophers, social scientists, public policy experts, and theologians. Scroll down to the bottom for links to lecture, articles, and commentary.

Synthetic Biology and Morality: Artificial Life and the Bounds of Nature (Book, MIT Press)
The book, resulting from the Hasting’s Center project, sets out to “consider the basic question of the ethics of making new organisms, with essays that lay out the conceptual terrain and offer opposing views of the intrinsic moral concerns; discuss the possibility that synthetic organisms are inherently valuable; and address whether, and how, moral objections to synthetic biology could be relevant to policy making and political discourse.”

Synthetic Biology: The Next Wave of Patents on Life (Council for Responsible Genetics)
Genetics watchdogs argue that Congress should prevent the patenting of DNA sequences that simply copy naturally occurring DNA.

(Image: Andrzej Krauze)

Let’s Get Real on Synthetic Biology (New Scientist)
A plea to town down the hyperbole in favor of a more wife-ranging and nuanced discussion about the possibilities of synthetic biology.

Reports on research in synthetic biology

Craig Venter Creates Synthetic Life Form (The Guardian)
Description of Craig Venter’s 2010 landmark research that build the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make what they call the world’s first synthetic life form.

Scientists Add Letters to DNA’s Alphabet, Raising Hope and Fear (NYT)
Researchers from Scripps Research Institute create an organism with an expanded artificial genetic code in its DNA. The original Nature article can be found here (but may be behind a paywall).

Image via Pacific Standard

Scientists Create ‘Alien’ Life Form with Artificial Genetic Code (CNet)
More details on the Scripps research that created a new organism based on E. coli that passes along artificially engineered DNA.

Scientists Move Closer to Inventing Artificial Life (National Geographic)
Researchers from NYU’s Langone Medical Center’s Institute for System Genetics insert a man-made chromosome into brewer’s yeast, producing a life form that thrives and successfully passes the designer genes on to its offspring. The original article, “Total Synthesis of a Functional Designer Eukaryotic Chromosome in Science,” can be found here, but is behind a paywall.

Science Gets Closer to Artificial Life with First Synthetic Chromosome (Gizmodo)
Popular science article on NYU’s research to insert a man-made, custom-built chromosome into brewer’s yeast that also passes down its man-made genes to its offspring.

World’s First Artificial Enzymes Created Using Synthetic Biology (Cambridge University)
A team of Cambridge researchers have created the world’s first enzymes made from artificial genetic material. The original Nature article can be found here, but is behind a paywall.