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Biotech Science

Synthetic DNA About To Yield New Life Forms 240

Posted by kdawson
from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong dept.
mlimber sends along a Washington Post story about the immanence of completely artificial life: "The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA, scientists and philosophers agree, will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial — and forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive... Some experts are worried that a few maverick companies are already gaining monopoly control over the core 'operating system' for artificial life and are poised to become the Microsofts of synthetic biology. That could stifle competition, they say, and place enormous power in a few people's hands."
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Synthetic DNA About To Yield New Life Forms

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  • theologian's typo? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @02:25AM (#21735660)
    That is _imminence_, or the quality of being imminent...

    Immanence is almost another entirely: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanence [wikipedia.org]
  • by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @02:28AM (#21735682)
    What kinds of organisms will scientists, terrorists and other creative individuals make?

    [broken image]

    Figure I. SCHEMATIC.
    Modified design for a low-pH respiratory engine. 1) monobasic phosphate buffer tank. 2) ADP-GDP reservoir. 3) primary ADP-GDP feed line. 4) NAD/FAD reservoir. 5) pyruvate feed line. 6) Deinococcus culture chamber. 7) ADP-GDP return line. 8) NADH-FADH2 return line. 9) pasteurizer. 10) sodium-potassium pump. 11) NaCl/KCl reservoir. 12) actin filament membrane. 13) myosin-hydroxyapetite cylinder. 14) axle. 15) flywheel. 16) dilute H3PO4 reservoir. 17) intake port. 18) myosin generator. 19) proton pump. 20) ATPase membrane. 21) secondary ATP feed line. 22) electrophoresis cartridge. 23) pH regulator. 24) UV sterilizer. 25) transmission. 26) +12VDC battery. 27) radiator coil assembly. 28) CO2 exhaust vent. 29) fan. 30) phosphate return line. 31) brake assembly. 32) generator. 33) amylase generator. 34) glycolysis chamber. 35) fibrolytic culture chamber array. 36) microcontroller. 37) compost chamber. 38) thresher. 39) lid. Cit. L. Xu et al, Cellulosic Artificial Muscle Engines (2057), Biomech. Eng. Letts. 21 599-612
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by oblivionboy (181090)
      Wrong!!

      Let me try.

      Figure I. SCHEMATIC: #32 Hot Woman.
    • by HTH NE1 (675604)
      "But it's covered in weapons [purepilot.com]."
  • Pfftt... (Score:3, Funny)

    by RuBLed (995686) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @02:33AM (#21735718)

    And while some industry groups have talked about policing the field themselves, the technology is quickly becoming so simple, experts say, that it will not be long before "bio hackers" working in garages will be downloading genetic programs and making them into novel life forms.


    SPORE hype...
  • by timeOday (582209) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @02:34AM (#21735728)
    Anything still based on DNA is re-using nature's building blocks. It's like in Photoshop, using the clone tool vs. drawing a photorealistic texture freehand - there's a huge difference. Nature has been searching the space of DNA recombinations for a long time.
    • by Angry Toad (314562) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @02:39AM (#21735772)
      True but nature's selection criteria aren't the same as man's. We can probably hit maxima that would be outcompeted in nature in a second. There are probably lots of unique and useful solutions out there when survival constraints are relaxed.
      • by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @03:22AM (#21736054)
        We can probably hit maxima that would be outcompeted in nature in a second.

        That depends on your definition of "maxima".

        Even with survival constraints as the basis for a successful design, it can't be denied that an intelligent designer could have come up with much better designs than the ones you see. Attributing evolutionary designs to an intelligent being is practically an insult when you look at some of the shoddy work evolution has come up with. Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned that can't be made to work better with slow incremental improvements. Evolution's fix: make them hurt like hell when struck so you learn not to mess with them. A Microsoft-style hack. If we threw a bunch of supercomputers at the problem we might come up with a completely different protein design that would allow reproduction with undescended testicles.

        Disregarding survival constraints as a parameter, a world of possibilities opens up. There is nothing in physics or chemistry that prevents the existence of almost any organism you can imagine, so long as fundamental physical constraints are adhered to such as conservation of energy, rising entropy, etc. I'd like an animal with wheels that I can drive to work, with chlorophyll in its skin so I don't have to feed it. Maybe it can sun itself on the roof while I'm at meetings, and ooze a delicious health drink from a special orifice so I can catch dinner on the way home. (Don't spit up your milk laughing, it's quite possible.) A creature like that would go extinct pretty quickly but it would sure be convenient to have one, and no law of nature prevents such a thing from existing.
        • by Plutonite (999141) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @03:55AM (#21736218)

          Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned
          Please speak for yourself, I like my testicles where they are thankyouverymuch. You might at well argue that we should have our genitals protectively hidden deep back in our throats and that we inseminate the females by spurting out the damn seed while we french kiss. or something. Wait, that was awful, sorry.

          While there is probably a lot that can be improved in the engineering of human bodies, I find it slightly disheartening that after thousands of years of learning we are still unable to create a single complex living cell without help from nature. When we do, it will be the greatest feat of engineering ever, and I will party like hell.
          • When we do, it will be the greatest feat of engineering ever, and I will party like hell.
            It'd be more of a triumph for analytical and organic chemistry, really. Analytical chemistry provides the high-resolution structure of the various components, and organic chemistry provides the reactions to synthesize them - all the engineers would be doing, is putting everything in the right order. It would require precision, certainly, but I'd assign more credit to the chemists.
          • by canuck57 (662392)

            While there is probably a lot that can be improved in the engineering of human bodies, I find it slightly disheartening that after thousands of years of learning we are still unable to create a single complex living cell without help from nature. When we do, it will be the greatest feat of engineering ever, and I will party like hell.

            Don't party too soon. What if they created a human with near the strength per pound of that of an ant by splicing in some ant's DNA. Then give her eyes from a bug with good

            • ... "the praying mantis routine" with a bug-woman-hybrid that looks like Natasha Henstridge may be a really good deal!
            • by john83 (923470)

              Don't party too soon. What if they created a human with near the strength per pound of that of an ant by splicing in some ant's DNA. Then give her eyes from a bug with good vision. Then raise the IQ, 500 - 600 aught to be enough. Will of course look like Natasha Henstridge. Finally, make the human female pheromones irresistibly strong for the male species.

              An ant is strong because its muscles are small. Muscle strength increases with length, and decreases with volume (I think). Guess which one grows faster! We need not fear giant ants. Or Natasha Henstridge.

        • "Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed,"

          Existing is dangerous in and of itself, I'm sure next you'll claim "existing is dangerous" kill me now! The design or non-design of something is totally arbitrary. If we look at entropy and the laws of nature, it's a double edged sword, you can't have one thing without the other, it falls out of the geometry naturally.

          A perfectly designed being would be a *god* by definition, and hence not natural, not made of the kind of matter an
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by crazyeddie740 (785275)
            Existing is dangerous. That is what drives evolution. Evolution happens when chaos (mutation) and destruction (natural selection) conspire to create order. Who says destruction is a bad thing?

            A 'perfectly designed' being, in this case, would be one that its perfectly suited to its environmental niche. It might be an ant (ant species are stable over deep time, so they must be doing *something* right), or a bacteria. It might not be terribly complex or intelligent. (Have you ever wondered if the hicks that su
        • by DaedalusHKX (660194) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @05:18AM (#21736586) Journal
          You seem to know little about this subject.

          Testicles are among the least of our concerns... what SHOULD concern you, especially in a "SURVIVAL" related subject, is that man seems to have been meant to stay on Earth (until man gets over this particular problem.)

          See, man is one of TWO mammalian species that requires an external source of vitamin C... otherwise we get scurvy... and eventually kick the bucket. Interesting that Earth's apex predator is range limited by something so simple as carrying a satchel of oranges or lemons on the ship... (okay, not all specimens of homo sapiens qualify for more than "monkey" classification, granted, and some are not capable of even surviving in society, nevermind without said crutch.)

          However, a voyage to the stars, without a good supply of replenishable vitamin C would become a trip delimited by a few days/weeks past the day when the vitamin C runs out.

          Pretty sad, when you think about it, every schmuck is looking at all these "big" problems, instead of looking at the fundamentals. Testicles and their placement on the body is nowhere nearly as bad as the fact that every single instance of homo sapiens in space would be cut short by the vitamin C supply. Ironic really, perhaps "intelligent design" might warrant a second look, unless of course, evolution and any supernatural forces others might attribute evolution to "realized" that man was a plague, and should be limited to Earth until it managed to kill itself off, whether by grey goo, killer designer virus, or just plain good ole' nuclear warfare.

          If that isn't a vote for intelligent design or intelligent forces of evolution, I don't know what is :)
          • by Yetihehe (971185)
            Your post is a little moot. EVERY organism on earth is meant to stay on earth. Every voyage to the stars is limited by water, food and oxygen. Vitamin C is least of your worries as you can just take a few kilograms of pure Vit C. It's so cheap it is even used as a preservative in many many foods. But you can't live JUST on it.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Chris Burke (6130)
            However, a voyage to the stars, without a good supply of replenishable vitamin C would become a trip delimited by a few days/weeks past the day when the vitamin C runs out.

            Uh... replace "vitamin C" with "food" and maybe the irrelevance of this issue will become apparent?

            It's not like minus vitamin C our bodies are self-sustaining. We still must intake sustenance. Any journey me take will be limited by the supply of food we can bring, which means for any truly lengthy journey we will need to grow food. An
          • Hmm. A vitamin c tweak wouldn't be that hard to do. You wouldn't need to localize it in any particular tissue, I wouldn't think. (Unless some tissues find it toxic?) You'd should just be able to plug the gene for it anywhere in the human genome and let 'er rip. Controlling the dosage would be a bit of a bitch, of course. Get it right and 'backwards compatibility' wouldn't be an issue. If one of the tweakers have sex with a baseline, then some of the kids will have the gene, some won't. Hell, its not even li
        • by mcrbids (148650) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @05:32AM (#21736632) Journal
          Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned that can't be made to work better with slow incremental improvements. Evolution's fix: make them hurt like hell when struck so you learn not to mess with them. A Microsoft-style hack. If we threw a bunch of supercomputers at the problem we might come up with a completely different protein design that would allow reproduction with undescended testicles.

          Which explains the survivability of so much hackish, clumsy, but real-working software. See, software, or life organisms persist to the degree that they solve real-world problems. How "elegant" the solution is is rather secondary. Often, real-world problems are ugly, pseudo-random nasty problems that don't have a clear, simple, ivory tower style solution. I maintain a large, complex, beautiful software codebase that has the ugliest, most horrible hack of a pile of regex and scripting as its very center. The nasty hacks have been amazingly stable for years now, and work well, even if they are a serious pain to edit during the (very rare) need to edit.

          It's carefully sandboxed - the ugly part sits in a single file that is itself wrapped inside a handler function, so the "pretty" part of the codebase is *never* contaminated by the ugly, "written in a day or two" hack that got the whole shebang started.

          Sometimes, no matter how much you kick and scream, you have several screens of ugly case statements littered with random function calls, and you end up with a great big ball of mud [laputan.org].

          Guess what!?!?! Look in the mirror - YOU ARE A GREAT BIG BALL OF MUD. Your body is a complex set of unclear, un-abstracted dependencies without clear boundaries. For example, we've long thought of the pancreas as a key component of blood sugar control. But recent research shows that the bones (yes, bones!) of the body also contribute to positive blood-sugar control [nytimes.com]. As a borderline type-II diabetic, I pay attention to things like this...

          Millions of years of evolution (or a few years of hard work by a half-drunk God) have resulted in your body, which is a festering pile of weird dependencies. For example, if you don't get exposed to enough dirt as a baby, you end up with asthma [bbc.co.uk].

          If Microsoft's software is truly evolutionary in nature, that would explain its dominance in today's marketplace - it's well adapted to survive in the software environment we've seen so far, and like the dinosaurs, it will only be beaten back when the basic environment changes. (which it is)

          Get used to the world of "dirty" evolutionary solutions - it's the basic building block of life itself!
        • Evolution's fix: make them hurt like hell when struck so you learn not to mess with them. A Microsoft-style hack.

          Either that or it shows that God has a sense of humour? Or is just giving a convenient way for girls to protect themselves in situations where they are usually at a gross disadvantage because the man is already stronger.. you can go at it with a bunch of supercomputers if you'd rather have to beat someone senseless with a heavy implement (or perhaps just shoot them?) rather than just kick them in the nuts and run away.

        • by m2943 (1140797)
          Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned that can't be made to work better with slow incremental improvements.

          You're jumping to conclusions. There may be many reasons for this particular arrangement: as a visual signal of sexual maturity, as a way of permitting fights among males to conclude without permanent injury, DNA-related issues, to select against individuals ta
        • Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures.

          As the posessor of an exceptionally fine pair of testicles, I prefer to assume that they are a secondary sexual characteristic, and in the time before clothes would have had selection value.

          Females, in my long and varied experience, are generally impressed by a large and well descended sac, and see it as a sign of fecundity.

          Have you ever seen a prize ram?

          Damn, they're near

        • by aliquis (678370)
          Damn, you must really hate your balls. How could you possible teabag someone without them!?!

          I'm glad we don't design animals, especially after reading your comment. Animals isn't made for us, or to be used by us, and it would suck to have one which would be even easier to take advantage of. Stop using animals as your slaves damnit. Just strap a pair of fat nerds into your golden chair and let them move you around. It's just as stupid.

          Your comment is gross and an insult to all life on planet earth.
          • I'm glad we don't design animals, especially after reading your comment. Animals isn't made for us, or to be used by us, and it would suck to have one which would be even easier to take advantage of. Stop using animals as your slaves damnit.

            You feel that way because the animals we enslave were originally evolved to survive on their own. Natural selection doesn't select for animals with instincts for human convenience. Chickens have retained their natural instincts to forage for food. We frustrate that insti
        • by Gilmoure (18428)
          Moving from horizontal to vertical/upright position has seriously screwed up our respiratory system. Allows all sorts of gunk to fall down into it. Much better having a system laid out horizontally. Someone should fix that.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Lord Ender (156273)
          Let me paraphrase that so people with little time can still get the gist of your statement without having to read much.

          testicles ... exposed ... protein ... ooze a delicious health drink from a special orifice so I can catch dinner on the way home. (Don't spit up your milk laughing, it's quite possible.)


          flexibility.
        • >A creature like that would go extinct pretty quickly but it would sure be convenient to have one

          Which would mean that human action would protect its species, redefining what 'evolutionary fitness' means in this context. Same thing with our normal domesticates.

          But, like the example of the testicles, intelligent design can get around the problem of *local* maximas (maximums? maxiae? whatever.) Things like how our eyes are built inside-out - the support infrastructure (blood vessels, nerves, etc.) is on to
        • by tfoss (203340)

          Even with survival constraints as the basis for a successful design, it can't be denied that an intelligent designer could have come up with much better designs than the ones you see. Attributing evolutionary designs to an intelligent being is practically an insult when you look at some of the shoddy work evolution has come up with.

          I marvel at your belief in human knowledge and our ability to design. The huge fly in the ointment, though, is that to design things we need to know an awful lot about the topic, in detail and with regards to its interaction with everything else.

          Why do balls hang low? Hell if I know, but I'm quite certain there is a complicated set of situational requirements that led to it. Is it that one protein hasn't been evolved for a higher temperature stability, or is that a whole range of cascades involved in sp

        • by HTH NE1 (675604)

          I'd like an animal with wheels that I can drive to work, with chlorophyll in its skin so I don't have to feed it. Maybe it can sun itself on the roof while I'm at meetings, and ooze a delicious health drink from a special orifice so I can catch dinner on the way home.
          Stanley Tweedle? Is that you?
      • by aliquis (678370)
        Maxima of the species in question or for our purpose? Evolution doesn't happen for the benefit of other species you know ..
    • by Anonymous Coward
      "...a few maverick companies are already gaining monopoly control over the core 'operating system' for artificial life ..."

      Roman Catholic Church cites Genesis in Prior Art claim.....
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by wizardforce (1005805)
      *ahem* there's no reason why we would need to specifically build artificial life based on DNA or RNA for that matter, there are several analogues that do jsut as well. maybe in time we'll find a completely different way of doing things that doesn't require anything remotely resembling the sugar phosphodiester backbone common in genetic systems today. even if we decided to base things on the DNA backbone, we could and probably will be using entirely different nucleotide bases to encode everything- none of
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by wyldeone (785673)

        *ahem* there's no reason why we would need to specifically build artificial life based on DNA or RNA for that matter, there are several analogues that do jsut as well

        Yes, there is. Doing so allows synthetic biologists to use all the cellular machinery, vastly simplifying their job. In case you didn't read the article, all the team referenced has done is create an artificial genome which, while still a very important achievement that will open many new doors in synthetic biology (assuming patent protection

        • yes, I should have rephrased that. there's no reason why we couldn't [eventually] build "life" based on entirely synthetic genetic systems. or for that matter, use it in lesser roles in lifeforms as they exist now. certain bacteria already modify their phosphate backbone with a sulfur based group which allows them to alter expression of their genes. morpholinos are already being used to temporarily modify gene expression; from there it would likely be a much shorter hop to replacing a much larger set of
  • Oh come on... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PieSquared (867490) <isosceles2006@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @02:37AM (#21735750)
    How exactly does this blur the boundaries of life? I could see some people questioning if a virus was really alive, but adding more things like viruses wouldn't *further* blur the line, and anything as complex as bacteria would be life regardless of if they were natural or not.

    I suppose if you let religion define "life" for you this might cause trouble, but definitions shouldn't be the job of religion.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by QuantumG (50515)
      the term "life" has zero meaning and will continue to have zero meaning. Any sensible definition you care to give will also classify computer programs, tractors and aeroplanes, unless you specifically exclude them. For a while, people have gotten around this by saying "oh, I mean biological life" but now that we're making machines out of biological "stuff" that trick doesn't work anymore.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by heinousjay (683506)
        Pretty much every definition of life I've ever seen included reproduction. I don't recall ever seeing tractors and airplanes reproduce. Software is only virtual anyway, and the arguments aren't very interesting unless one is in the mood to get very abstract. Do you have any more bad examples?
  • In fact, government controls on trade in dangerous microbes do not apply to the bits of DNA that can be used to create them. And while some industry groups have talked about policing the field themselves, the technology is quickly becoming so simple, experts say, that it will not be long before "bio hackers" working in garages will be downloading genetic programs and making them into novel life forms.

    We've only been waiting, forever. It's hard to imagine the megacorps coming up with something even remotely innovative to do with this technology. We need hackers.

  • They're worried about competition? As in BUSINESS competition? This kind of tech makes me worry more about competition in the true Darwinian sense of the word. What happens when "the Microsoft of DNA" codes an airborn AIDS virus into the system? Kinda puts all that Wall Street crap into perspective, doesn't it?

  • DMCA (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Just be glad that God hasn't invoked the DMCA on reverse-engineering his DNA Code yet.
  • not jsut DNA (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wizardforce (1005805) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @02:45AM (#21735820) Journal
    who says artificial life needs to be based on DNA? The earliest forms of life probably used RNA instead or one of its cousins like TNA, GNA, PNA or LNA. DNA is only special in the fact that it is missing a key hydroxyl group in the 2 position. this makes DNA more stable because there's no nucleophillic group there toi assist in self-cleavage of the phosphodiester bond. GNA has a backbone of glycerol rather than ribose [RNA] or deoxyribose [DNA]. PNA uses a reperating serine polypeptide backbone and because the whole thing has no charge like DNA does it has a much higher melting temperature [can withstand more heat] which may make it superior to DNA or RNA in some applications in biology. TNA on the other hand, has a synthetic polymerase enzyme that has to my knowledge, been able to create strands 1000 bases long. then there's alternative nucleotide bases, there are similar molecules to the naturally occuring 5 that also can encode for proteins and act in genetic systems. there's a lot that can be done with this, it's just a pity that it will probably be encumbered in patents if and when any of it is realized.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by MuLaNLaNg (842442)
      I've been to California and trust me, there's plenty of artificial TnA running around.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by aminorex (141494)
      Cogent, thanks. I think it's also worthwhile to point out that the original WaPo article is just wrong when it says that DNA contains "all of the instructions" necessary to construct a living organism. The proteome contains the "instructions", the program. The DNA is mere "data" which the proteome operates upon. The proteome is the interpretive mechanism for constructing a living device from the DNA blueprint, and contains all of the "intelligence" in the analogy to a -> house construction process.

      I
    • by tfoss (203340)

      who says artificial life needs to be based on DNA?
      No one, except for expediency. We've got a huge set of tools that nature provided for us to use on DNA & RNA, and essentially none for any other NA. If I'm going to build a house, I'm going to start by buying a hammer and saw down at the hardware store rather than fashioning new ones myself.

      -Ted
  • That could stifle competition, they say, and place enormous power in a few people's hands

    Only if they allow these companies to patent the technology so broadly as to stifle competition. By 'only' I of course mean 'when'.

    It's crazy talk anyway. The 'Microsoft of DNA'? To Paraphrase Paul Graham, only if there's someone to bend over and be the IBM of DNA.

    Seriously though, that's highly unlikely at this stage unless effective monopolies are granted via patent and maintained in perpetuity so as to prevent any c
    • by Arthur B. (806360)
      mod parent up !

      If someone starts creating new life, we're not worst off merely because he's the only one doing it, however, if they start getting effective monopolies through patents, that becomes a serious problem.
  • No doubt our good friends at Monsanto would kill to be the main maverick company in question.
  • Considering that many people choose to apply their programming skills in writing computer viruses, should we expect like-minded people to disseminate real synthetic viruses once the technology becomes sufficiently mainstream?

    • by Grey_14 (570901)
      Scarier than that, computer viruses have taken a drastic turn towards being used for nefarious means, greater than just trashing data, When the zombie revolution comes, they will be chanting "Buy... Viagraaaaa"
  • Whoa (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jandersen (462034) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @03:45AM (#21736174)
    Hold it, hold it! We're not quite there yet. It was only yesterday, on the historical timescale, that we discovered DNA and now we are beginning to get some vague ideas about how some of the things actually work. We can even theorize about correcting errors in people's genetic code, but creating a living cell from scratch? Not even the best biologists know more than a tiny fraction of what goes into making a living cell function. IOW, we are far, far out in the world of science fiction here nobody is just on the threshold to discovering how to create living cells from scratch, or even mostly from scratch.

    If and when that ever happens, I don't think any of the readers of /. will be around. The problem with absurd, sweeping patents will have solved itself by collapsing completely, capitalism is likely to have been left behind as yet another temporary absurdity in human culture, the climate change crisis will have run its course and found its solution, and if humanity is still around, we will have found a role as the guardians and preservers of the planets.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by QuantumG (50515)
      It was announced this year that most of the genes of ecoli are now "understood" to the degree that we can now remove the genes we don't understand and still get a working system. It really is amazing how fast biotech is moving..

      J. Craig Venter [wikipedia.org] is still the leading force. Next year he plans to publish a full artificial genome for a "minimalist" microbe. This thing can metabolize a feedstock and reproduce. All the genes are well understood. The structure of the proteins they make have been described. Ho
      • by fbjon (692006)
        What scares me is when trojans and botnets start to appear in biological form.
  • by mark-t (151149) <`markt' `at' `lynx.bc.ca'> on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @04:08AM (#21736286) Journal
    <troll>If many hundreds of thousands or millions of years from now when humanity is a thing of the past, descendants of the synthetic DNA creatures start debating about whether or not they evolved naturally, or were created by a long-forgotten designer? Of course the former would obviously be a more acceptable conclusion, since the latter creates additional complexity.</troll>
    • It would only answer so much... If they (or we) were designed, it only changes the question to, "How did the designed come to be?"
      • by mark-t (151149)
        Hence the increase in complexity. And of course, when you have no objectively verifiable data on the designer (such as affirming whether or not the designer even existed in the first place), that is an utterly unanswerable question, which again... increases the complexity of the issue. What the real kicker would be is that the fact that we would have been responsible for their design and creation will not affect the conclusion that we never existed at all when no objectively verifiable evidence exists to
  • vaporware (Score:4, Insightful)

    by graft (556969) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @04:10AM (#21736292) Homepage
    It should be pointed out that the technology described is largely fictitious. The best labs haven't even managed to create a single artificial cell, and those technologies ALL use cobbled-together bits stolen from other lifeforms - nothing truly from scratch. There are a few good examples of proteins being engineered to specific functions (mostly DNA binding specificity), but we're ages away from being able to say, "Okay, I want to synthesize a protein that does this random function; here's how I would do it." And as for more complex lifeforms? Forget it. We don't even understand the development process of any multicellular organism in any detail, never mind being able to manufacture our own. So, on the whole, I think this story is akin to worrying about who is going to get control of, say, shrink-ray technology. Scary when it happens, but it ain't happening any time soon.
    • by Aladrin (926209)
      Pretty much off-topic, but did anyone else read the Myst books?

      This paragraph reminds me of Atrus' father writing books. He would pull bits and pieces of other worlds and cobble them together, and they never worked. Atrus rejected that approach and decided to actually understand how things worked, and his books were successful...

      I suspect this will go pretty much the same road. The first scientists will cobble things together poorly, and have little or no actual success, but pave the way for the next gen
    • by delt0r (999393)
      We are even further behind than that. We don't even understand regulation of a single cell. It will come, but its going to take a long time, require massive computing power and enormous amounts of data from the field.
      • Much of this data will come from studying simplified biologies in synthetic cells. We don't have to understand it fully, just enough to get by. These efforts will help test our understanding and drive research into the systems operation of natural biological systems.
  • by ElizabethGreene (1185405) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @06:46AM (#21736878)
    There may be a "patent troll" of artificial life, but there will be no Microsoft. DNA is, by definition, open source.

    -ellie
    • I fear this is hyperbole. DNA isn't open source in any realistic definition of the term, in fact for the most part it's not even "source available". It's self replicating in many instances, but it's not something we have any high level representative of. It costs millions just to reverse engineer to what might be called "assembly language level" the DNA of a single human being.

      And that "assembly code" is barely readable. We don't know what most of the functional parts do, and about 90% of it isn't even f

  • Defining Life (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @07:48AM (#21737200) Homepage Journal
    "Life" is a system that transduces energy to maintain local entropy reductions that perpetuate its operation: homeostasis. Recognizable life replicates itself, or is replicated, from identical or nearly identical instances: reproduction.

    FWIW, "intelligence" is an information model of the physical world at least minimally accurate and at least minimally inclusive (perhaps solely at initialization) of new information that it adds to itself, and that includes representation of itself in its model.
    • Serious question: would fire count as life under that defintion? I'm not sure if it has any local entropy reduction. Unless maybe you take "reduction" to mean "adding electrons" :-P
      • by Doc Ruby (173196)
        Fire itself doesn't locally reduce entropy - it increases entropy. Not alive. Though it looks like it's increasing order internally, along the luminous gas flows, so it's sometimes treated as a living thing. Especially by people even more impressed by its invisible action.
  • First, it's imminent, not immanent. Rather Freudian slip.

    And again, this doesn't appear to me to be synthetic life any more than putting an artificial heart into a person and starting it up is giving them "artificial life". We're taking pieces (important ones), creating them synthetically, and sticking them into a living creature.

    And this is a non-trivial distinction. The real question about life is a more metaphysical one: if we come to the point where we can move molecules on large scales like Legos, p
  • When I first saw the title, I read it as "Synthetic DNA About To Yield to New Life Forms".

    I guess that's about the only time the "overlords" joke really is called for ... and funny! :-)

  • synthetic biology involves the large-scale rewriting of genetic codes to create metabolic machines with singular purposes.

    And there you have it. Life, living beings, are not "machines with singular purposes." Having but one purpose pretty much defines how a machine differs from life, defines an instrument to be used by myriad-purposed life forms. Human beings are the most general-purpose life forms evident on Earth. But anything more than a bacterium (maybe even them) has evolved in a many-dimensional envir

  • Hmm is this life imitating art or what? I am all for learning about DNA. There's a lot to learn that could possibly
    help with many cures for genetic diseases along the way. But... to take DNA and sequence it to produce a life form?
    We are going to produce monsters along the way. Who knows.. possibly something harmful. I am sure they would start at sequencing bacteria. And we know where this will lead. Some government agency will fund the research, scientists will take
    the funding and possibly design a s
  • Oh great, just f-ing great!

    Imagine creating a special virus that can be passed from person to person. But, when it reaches its intended target (specific genetic code), it assassinates!

    I'm just another lowly Slashdotter. You all know damn well I'm not the first one to think of this. I'm sure it's been on the drawing board for quite some time in both the US and Russia. Who knows, maybe such viral assassinations have already taken place.

  • It will be a long time before there are radical changes in synthetic life. The early wrok will be tinking: combing proteins from different existing lifeforms, changing an amino there, etc.
  • Mankind isn't smart enough to predict every possible effect of this kind of thing.
    Name me one case where mankind has meddled with nature and it hasn't become a total screw-up.
    This technology can only lead to trouble. Probably waay more trouble than any previous meddling with nature that mankind has so far done as it the first technology to directly manipulate our core mechanisms in a unreversible and potentially uncontrollable way as genetically modified people also have a right to have kids, so passing gen
    • Man, that's awfully short sighted.

      Sure it can be dangerous, but it also has tremendous potential. Our chances of getting obliterated by some naturally evolved super bug are pretty high anyway. The universe is hostile to life, life is hostile to life.

      Don't sweat it, you'll go mad.
  • Terry Pratchett has in the Discworld-series in 'The Last Continent' a small god playing with these ideas. Leads to an unexpected result, though...

    (quote) ...'And the flaming cows?' said Ridcully.
    'The what?' said the god, sunk in misery.
    'The more inflammable cow,' said Ponder.
    'Oh yes. Another good idea that didn't work. I just thought, you know, that if you could find the bit in, say, an oak tree which says "Be inflammable" and glue it into the bit of the cow which says "Be soggy" it'd save a lot of trouble.

From Sharp minds come... pointed heads. -- Bryan Sparrowhawk

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