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At the most sci-fi end of synthetic biology is the idea of synthetic life – entirely novel organisms produced from scratch using molecular building blocks.

 This reminds me of a widely circulated statement (may be an apocryphal) by R.B. Woodward who received  the Nobel Prize (1965) for the organic synthesis. In response to a question:  "Will you next synthesize life". He replied: "I am quite happy with the way it is  presently done".

But in the year 2010 Craig Venter and his team made the breakthrough.By manipulating the ‘instructions’ for life, synthetic biology is a field which allows us to probe into ideas about how life originated and what its minimal components are. Whilst entirely synthetic organisms or cells produced from scratch are yet to be produced, scientists have produced organisms with entirely synthetic genomes i.e. carrying genetic material that has been produced entirely synthetically. 

Craig Venter and 'synthetic life'

Craig Venter

In 2010, John Craig Venter, a high-profile and sometimes controversial figure in the fields of biotechnology and synthetic biology, made waves when his team produced what was called the first case of ‘synthetic life’. The team synthesised an entire genome (they printed every base of DNA) inserted into a Mycoplasma capricolum emptied of DNA. The resulting organism became known as Syn 1.0 and carried within its genome several encoded ‘watermarks’ including the names of all 46 scientists involved in the project.

Although some have described this as the first case of artificial life, it is important to remember that the genome itself and thus all the 'instructions' for the organism was based almost entirely on the genome of a pre-existing organism, Mycoplasma mycoides. Scientists are still yet to design an entirely new organism by writing a new genome. 

A truly synthetic artificial cell remains to be created; so far there is no incidence of a living state (a self reproducing evolving system) that can come from a non-living state.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you think?

About the authors

View full profile Jake Curtis from London

I am a student at Cambridge University who has just finished a BA in Natural Sciences, focusing on Genetics in my third year. I am now studying for an MSc in Systems Biology.

View full profile Hari Raj Singh from Munich

I am a life science researcher with a strong belief that the 21st century is going to be the century of biology touching every aspect of modern human life. I am very excited about the prospects of the new and highly consequential field of synthetic biology. I believe in the power of innovation and that the innovation in life science in particular will positively impact every aspect of human endeavour in the coming decades. I also think that “Synthetic biology driven global bio-economy is our real genuine chance on alleviating global poverty”. This is our moment as life science researchers to provide sustainable growth engines in the form of life science driven disruptive-innovations fueled by our desire to better understand the biological systems and our ability to re-purpose the biological systems; to ultimately bring a paradigm shift in the economic model, what I call the bio-economic model. In future, I am looking forward to the opportunities in this direction with a focus on bottom-up disruptive innovation, which would require very close collaborative efforts from academia, industry and entrepreneurs and a bit of paradigm shift in government policies towards catalyzing the same. I have been and i continue to develop my personal and professional competencies towards creating these aforementioned opportunities, which would help me to contribute and move forward this broader vision that I have and that I very strongly believe in. I think engineering approaches to the understanding of the biological systems that the field of synthetic biology promises to offer is not only going to enhance our understanding in the basic biological research and life science innovation but also it will fuel advances in Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry and Engineering. I am excited about the possibilities and want to be part of it.

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