Linkage 5/20: Synthetic Life? & Phineas Gage


The newborn. (courtesy: J. Craig Venter Institute)

The biggest science story of the year may have broken yesterday, though it’s hard to say either the topic or the source was a surprise. J. Craig Venter, one of the driving forces of the Human Genome Project, announced via the Institute that bears his name the creation of the first synthetic cell – a bacterium with DNA entirely constructed in the laboratory. Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 might not have the catchiest of names, but it’s a landmark of scientific achievement: the first time man has moved beyond studying life to creating it.

The paper, published yesterday in Science, is a technical marvel of laboratory perseverance. It turns out creating a genome from scratch isn’t as easy as just sticking a bunch of nucleotides together; the final string of more than 1 million base-pairs had to be laboriously constructed from hundreds of smaller cassettes, and even the tiniest errors could be catastrophic. “Our success was thwarted for many weeks by a single pair deletion in the essential gene, dnaA,” the article reports (and you can almost feel the frustration). “One wrong base out of over one million in an essential gene rendered the genome inactive.”

There’s no doubting the magnitude of the achievement, but is Venter’s creation truly “synthetic life,” as many media outlets are ready to claim? Some interesting perspectives are provided in Science’s rival Nature, who asked several scientists and ethicists to write essays on the meaning of the announcement. Steen Rasmussen from the University of Southern Denmark argues that it is not truly synthetic life, because the Venter’s team created only the DNA, which was placed into a pre-existing, natural cell. Another expert, Jim Collins from Boston University, calls the synthetic genome a “stitched-together copy of the DNA of an organism that exists in nature, with a few small tweaks thrown in.” Indeed, the Venter genome is built from 300+ bacterial genes the group determined to be the minimal amount necessary to create a functional cell, with the only significant addition being “watermarks” left by the researchers (including quotes from Richard Feynman and James Joyce).

But if science is like crossing the Atlantic Ocean one lily pad at a time, Thursday’s announcement was still a pretty damn cool lily pad. The ultimate dream – of creating new life that can generate fuel, clean up pollution and produce faster, better vaccines – may still be years if not decades away from reality. So too, may be the ultimate fear of human-created organisms running wild in the natural ecosystem. As Carl Zimmer wrote in 2007, with just the right mixture of awe and caution, about the future of synthetic biology, someday “out of a million garages, a million new species may bloom.”

Blog founding father Jeremy Manier covered Venter’s project back in 2008 for the Chicago Tribune.


phineas_gage_daguerreotype_wilgusphoto2008-12-19_croppedinsidemat_unretouched_bwI never get tired of hearing about the story of Phineas Gage, the 1800’s railroad worker who suffered a particularly gross brain injury and came away with a radically altered personality. The damage to his frontal lobe helped scientists figure out the role of that brain region in controlling impulses and behavior. But a new article, highlighted on Mind Hacks, finds evidence that Gage showed signs of recovery from his injury later in life, adding both a new chapter to a favorite psychology-class story and testimony to the brain’s ability to adapt after even the most extreme injury.

Speaking of brain trauma, A new JAMA article reports that patients who have suffered a traumatic brain injury are almost 8 times more likely to experience depressive symptoms after the injury. Joseph Fink, an assistant professor of neuropsychology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, weighed in on the findings with MedPage Today. The study reminded me of a poster I saw just last week presented by medical student Maxwell Rovner at the Pritzker Senior Scientific Session, where a smaller study of epilepsy patients found very high rates (88%) of depression in the 72 hours after a seizure. Clearly, any shock to the brain can lead to severe psychiatric consequences on top of the more direct neurological issues; if the mechanism for those disturbances could be unraveled, it could say a lot about the origins of mental illness.

I can barely wrap my mind around the scale of the Gulf oil spill disaster, so I’ve taken refuge in stories that emphasize the scientific angles of this environmental story. Here’s a nice NatureNews piece on the use of dispersant chemicals, a strategy I’ve seen a lot of skepticism about on my news feed. An AP story explains why it has been so hard to get a firm grasp of the size and spread of the oil spill. Of course, even the science surrounding the oil spill gets political, as yesterday’s New York Times reported.

Nothing like a good scientific explanation for a paranormal phenomenon. In this case, it’s ball lightning, which two physicists theorize could be the result of stroke-induced tiny magnetic fields that produce hallucinations.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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