Ventner's Not All That

By Megan McArdle

A reader writes:


Y'know, Ms. McArdle, I am getting bombarded with the Venter "crated life" stuff today and, eh.  I think it was a big deal when (seven years ago?) they made their "minimal" genome, and you could see where they were going then.  But this isn't such a big deal now becuase well, it's what we do all the time: you pop in a new bit of DNA, sometimes one you made by solid state synthesis, and replace stuff that's in the cell already.  OK, they replaced everything.  But it's different in scale not kind whatever Venter says.

I lose enthusiasm in part by comparing the the stuff Pete Schulz was doing when I was at Berkeley (and I think is doing at Scripps now).  I mean, those guys made whole new kinds of DNA and popped it into bacteria which now have six or eight instead of four genetic "letters."  They made whole new amino acids, so those new DNAs could encode new, totally unnatural proteins.  Then they decided, well, all that's goofy unless the bug is actually synthesizing the amino acids itself -- so they grafted in those metabolic pathways!  I mean, it was beyond belief, and is really "synthetic" in a way Venter isn't: they're making new, entirely non-natural stuff, because they can.  Somehow that flies under the radar though; I never quite figure what stories the lay press will pick up on.

Now, if somebody assembles a cell from scratch, I guess it's not as biochemilcally significant as the Scripps stuff but it'll still feel somehow that a milestone was crossed.  But Venter's "synthtetic" cell just doesn't knock me out.

He adds:

Try this.  Fer cryin' out loud, they're making a 21-amino-acid mouse.  A mouse.  Screw Venter's mycobacterium.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/05/ventners-not-all-that/57046/