Thursday, June 30, 2005

Building life

J. Craig Venter in an Edge interview
The third and last area we're using is in synthetic biology. Trying to understand the basic components of a cell, we've tried knocking out genes, and trying to see what gene cells could live without, but we get different answers every time the experiment's done, depending on how it's done, whether it's a batch growth, or you require cloning out of the cells, different growth requirements. We decided some time ago the only way to approach this was to build an artificial chromosome and be able to do evolution in the laboratory the way it happens in the environment.

We're building a hundred cassettes of five or more genes, where we can substitute these cassettes, build an artificial chromosome, and try and create artificial species with these unique sets. But now with 8 million genes, and as this work continues, it's conceivable within a year or two having data bases of 30, 40, 100 million genes. Biology is starting to approach the threshold that the electronics industry passed where all of a sudden people had all the components and could start building virtually anything they wanted, using these different components. We have a problem, we don't understand all the biology at first principle levels yet, but we're getting the tools, we're getting the components where we can artificially build these, and we think we can, in the computer, design a species, design what biological functions we want it to have, and add this to the existing skeleton.

Understanding the gene components, working forward from those, we're applying this to energy production. We've tried to change photosynthesis by taking oxygen insensitive hydrogenases, and we're converting all the electrons direct from sunlight into hydrogen production. We're doing this with a molecular switch, so you can throw the switch and hydrogen bubbles off and you turn the switch off chemically and it stops the production. We're also trying to come up with new ways for fermentation from wood. So we're approaching things on a broad level, looking at genes as the fundamental components of biology and the future of industry.

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