Take four bottles of the chemicals from which DNA is made, pour them into some high-powered lab equipment, add a lot of biological know-how, percolate the resulting gene chunks in yeast cells and — voila! — you’ve got the first wholly synthetic genome.
That’s the oversimplified version of an unprecedented bioengineering feat announced today in Science by researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute, founded by the eponymous Human Genome Project pioneer to explore the possibilities of man-made cellular structures. So-called synthetic biologists say that customized organisms could someday fuel our cars, gobble greenhouse gases and fight disease.
"It’s a methodological tour-de-force," said James Collins, a Boston University bioengineer who wasn’t involved with the study.
The JCVI genome was copied from Mycoplasma genitalium, the second-smallest known bacteria; while JCVI scientists have already figured out how to swap chromosomes from one cell to another, they didn’t do that in today’s study. (The percolate-in-yeast step was necessary to combine the synthesized genome fragments, but the cells weren’t actually booted up and turned loose.)
Significant scientific question marks — how to activate genes, what many genes actually do — remain in the booting process, so there’s a long way to go before dreams of bacteria-powered cars are realized. Nevertheless, the JCVI feat was a marvelous proof-of-principle for synthetic biology, and a sign that it’s not too early to start thinking about some of the issues that will shape the reality of this promising field.
I’ve written before about the regulation of synthetic biology; so far, most of the social debate has involved issues of potential bioterror –
what if the bad guys start making new bugs? Less attention has been paid to questions of lab safety and intellectual property.
The latter is especially interesting. Perhaps I’m cavalier, but I feel reasonably assured that synthetic biologists will build upon the biotechnology community’s generally solid track record of handling genetically modified organisms. On the other hand, synthetic biology’s intellectual property frontiers are wide open. Will a few companies claim ownership of crucial techniques and insights, giving them a monopoly over a potentially world-changing science? Or will the the progressive, copylefting culture of many synthetic biology pioneers prevail, turning it into the biotech equivalent of open-source software development?
The biotech watchdog ETC Group has criticized the JCVI’s earlier patent claims, calling them unreasonably broad and potentially stunting to other researchers. Some synthetic biologists agree; others, such as Harvard’s
George Church, aren’t too worried. "Even Microsoft couldn’t stop
Google, Firefox, Java, Linux, etc.," said Church in December.
So what’s the IP status of the latest JCVI breakthrough? During today’s press conference call I asked Venter about new claims. "We just recently filed patent applications on techniques that we think are broadly applicable to making DNA polymers. They are novel techniques,"
"There are only a few specialized groups that think the intellectual property is a major issue. I just came from a major chemical industry meeting where IP is not only the norm but the essential step in the process for making any chemical that the field runs on. DuPont is the leading one, with the first chemical-making cells in production…. We don’t think the methods being developed are the only methods that will work. But we’re also publishing all our methods, and if somebody wants to license it, we’ll be glad to trade. We don’t plan to block anything in a monopoly fashion, even hypothetically."
Despite his conviction that JCVI’s methods aren’t the only ones that will work, I’m still uncomfortable having the fruits of such basic research land in the private domain. Not that financial incentive is a bad thing — far from it. But with synthetic biology still in its infancy, I’d rather the incentive be limited to the end products — the fuel-producing and CO2-gobbling bugs — instead of the basic steps needed to get there.
However, it’s possible that such concerns are my hippie roots poking out. Craig Venter certainly isn’t John Rockefeller, and JCVI isn’t the
Bell System. Patent claims notwithstanding, the very fact that this research was published, rather than kept in a company vault, shows a willingness to share with the scientific world — and even with competitors.
I asked Collins whether he’s worried about a synthetic biology IP
grab. Said Collins, "Provided that academic groups aren’t hindered from using that technology in their research, I’m a fan of patents.
Companies at the end of the day are in the business of selling services."
Collins agreed with Venter that JCVI’s techniques are unlikely to be the only ones capable of building new cellular components and ultimately organisms — though that’s a long ways off.
"It’s one thing to be able to synthesize a gene or sequence a gene, and another to figure out biologically what it’s doing. There’s this false sense of insight," he said. "We still lack insights into many of the pathways that make these cells work, but synthesizing them will open new ways to study how they behave."
So don’t worry too much, copylefters — but if you’re really serious about putting synthetic biology in the public domain, then support some basic research by sympathetic scientists! The field is still young.