Brooks (brooksmoses) wrote,
Brooks
brooksmoses

In which everyone is reporting it, so I might as well.

People have compared this to going to the moon. Maybe, though to begin with it was certainly cheaper -- $40M in current dollars, compared to billions of dollars a year in budget for the Apollo program. Also, one of the big differences is that, when Apollo 11 lifted off, everyone in the country knew exactly what was happening the rocket motors kicked in.

This one, though, is being a sort of spreading sparkle of links across people's blogs, and I think most of us are in a sort of state of surprise that this was even being attempted. And relying on popular media to explain it, which is always entertaining with scientific discoveries.

So, here: have a link to a proper scientific explanation of what happened (from In The Pipeline, a med-chem blog I read regularly). It has links to the requisite Science and Nature articles. Also, this article by P. Z. Myers, as recommended by james_nicoll, is even more in-depth.

The brief rundown is this: A team of researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland and San Diego have done the following:
  • Written down the genome sequence for Mycoplasma Mycoides (a type of bacteria that's a goat parasite), and edited it with some changed bits (in particular, a data block containing their names and a website and email address, and a gene for a bright blue color).
  • Created, in synthesizer machines, small bits of DNA from that slightly-edited genome.
  • Stitched these small bits together and replicated them using the usual DNA synthesis techniques, and repeated this process until they had created a strand of DNA containing the whole genome.
  • Transplanted this DNA into an appropriate sort of cell from something close to the original bacterium (in particular, a different Mycoplasma).
  • Watched it reproduce, and observed that the data block and blue color and Mycoides-ness were preserved in the subsequent generations.
Or, in short, they created some DNA from scratch (using a largely-preexisting genome) and then created living bacteria that were formed from that completely-artificial DNA.

This probably doesn't get us measurably closer to being able to write genomes from scratch, and it doesn't even get us all the way to having a way to use the corresponding DNA if we do (since this relied on using a similar-enough bacterium to transplant the DNA into). And, in this particular example, there are easier ways to put some changed bits into an existing DNA pattern. But it is nonetheless a technical tour de force (and responsible for notable advances in the underlying technology), and it illustrates that we can in fact create actual functional DNA -- which describes actual living bacteria -- completely by artificial means, given only the data to do it with.

Is that equivalent to a footstep on the moon? I dunno, but it's certainly interesting.
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