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Yet another synthetic life claim?

What should we make of the new Syn3A cells?

J
Craig Venter

by

Published: 15 April 2021 (GMT+10)

Headlines are again buzzing about an apparent creation of “a perfectly self-replicating synthetic cell.”1 This came from a collaboration between the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms.2 Not surprisingly, we have received a number of short enquiries.

Déjà vu?

But the answers to the current claims don’t seem to be much different in principle from what I wrote about a similar synthetic life claim 11 years ago. It took an enormous amount of intelligence to make this cell, and they borrowed a lot of information from already-existing cells.

In particular, they synthesized the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, with 1.08 million base-pairs (bp)3 and about 985 genes.4 They made a few ‘watermark’ modifications to prove it was synthetic. Then they implanted this artificial chromosome into the shell of the closely related Mycoplasma capricolum that had its own DNA removed. The resulting synthetic organism was Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, also called Mycoplasma laboratorium or Synthia. This was arguably the most valuable non-human cell in history—it cost US$40 million and 200 man-years to produce.

The simplest life?

Back then, the issue was how simple life could be. The simplest life form of all is Mycoplasma genitalium, which has 580,000 bp comprising 482 genes. This was the first choice for the model of Synthia, but it grows too slowly for their purposes, so the scientists chose M. mycoides that had almost double the genome. (All are far smaller than the Escherichia coli bacteria that inhabit your large intestine, which have about 3,000 genes. Humans have about 30,000, each of which on average makes three proteins,5 thanks to the splicing code among other things.) So the next step was to try and make an artificial life form simpler than M. genitalium.

After more painstaking work, experimenting with what genes a cell could do without, they made JCVI-syn3.0 in 2016.6 Finally this broke the record, since it had only 531,000 bp, 473 genes. But did it really?

In reality, this germ could not reproduce properly. Instead of producing identical daughter cells, they produced cells of very different shapes and sizes, albeit genetically identical. It shows the immense complexity required for a cell to produce two identical daughter cells, i.e. truly reproduce: DNA replication and making sure the machinery is duplicated and lands in the correct membranes of the two new cells.

More complexity needed

JCVI-syn3A
A time-lapse video showing cells of the synthetic organism JCVI-syn3A growing and dividing under a light microscope, from a research collaboration between the J. Craig Venter Institute, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Bits and Atoms. The scale bar represents 50 micrometers.
Credit: E. Strychalski/NIST and J. Pelletier/MIT

The scientists thus realized that too minimalist was “perhaps too minimalist”7—it does need some of those discarded genes after all! In particular, seven genes were identified as being essential for proper reproduction into two identical daughter cells. But so far, they could work out what only two of them actually did; they don’t yet know what the other five do, just that they are necessary.

The researchers ended up returning 19 genes to JCVI-syn3.0 to produce the new cell, dubbed JCVI-syn3A. This produced more even daughter cells.

But even this new cell is described as “delicate … Tiny forces can tear them apart.” So several of the co-authors designed a “microfluidic chemostat – a sort of mini-aquarium”, so they could be protected and observed while dividing.

Good science

Why would scientists bother? There are good reasons in both ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science. The pure aspect is finding out about how life works at a fundamental level. Elizabeth Strychalski, co-author and leader of NIST’s Cellular Engineering Group, said:

We want to understand the fundamental design rules of life. If this cell can help us to discover and understand those rules, then we’re off to the races.

On the applied science level, once we know better how life works, we could engineer them to help mankind:

Identifying these genes is an important step toward engineering synthetic cells that do useful things. Such cells could act as small factories that produce drugs, foods and fuels; detect disease and produce drugs to treat it while living inside the body; and function as tiny computers.

However, they still have much to learn, as Dr Strychalski said, “Life is still a black box.” Trying to find out how life works is honourable work. From a biblical point of view, this would be part of exercising the Dominion Mandate of Genesis 1:28, which motivated most of the founders of modern science.

Implications for chemical evolution (‘abiogenesis’)

Scientist-synthesize-life-machine

As we have pointed out before, synthetic life hardly proves that life could arise in a primordial soup without intelligence. In reality, teams of intelligent scientists toiled for years to make this work. This work shows that more genes are needed for minimal life than was thought 10 years ago.

Now the number is about as high as that in the simplest naturally occurring life, the Mycoplasma kind. But this type of bacterium has no cell walls. It can survive only by parasitizing more complex organisms that provide many of the nutrients it cannot manufacture for itself. For example, mycoplasmas can infect the urogenital tract and lungs of humans. Indeed, Mycoplasma seems to have arisen by loss of genetic information, making it dependent on its host.8

And even this ‘delicate’ synthetic cell seems even less hardy than Mycoplasma. It certainly doesn’t seem like something that would last long in a primordial soup—even if it could arise in the first place.

Not science v religion but science v science

The debate really is not science v religion, but a clash of the religions of theism v naturalism, and the science interpreted in support. Our critics often falsely accuse us of ‘god of the gaps’ and an argument from ignorance. This comes with the implication that as science advances, less and less of a gap will be found for God. In reality, we argue from what we do know about chemistry, biology, and information theory. In reality, our opponents resort to ‘naturalism of the gaps’, and desperately hope that a viable naturalistic origin story can be made.

This latest work is just one of many examples of science advancing and finding more problems for naturalism than it solves. If you like, the ‘gap’ the critics pretend we rely on is getting wider, not smaller. In this case, they realized that supposedly unnecessary genes were necessary after all. Advancing science just shows how complex even ‘simple’ life must be, and thus even further beyond the reach of undirected chemistry.

References and notes

  1. Lanese, N., Scientists built a perfectly self-replicating synthetic cell, livescience.com, 30 Mar 2021. Return to text.
  2. Pelletier, J.F. and 11 others, Genetic requirements for cell division in a genomically minimal cell, Cell, published online 29 Mar 2021 | doi:10.1016/j.cell.2021.03.008. Return to text.
  3. Gibson, D.G. and 23 others, Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome, Science 329(5987):52-56, 2 Jul 2010 | doi:10.1126/science.1190719. Return to text.
  4. Westberg, J. and 7 others, The genome sequence of Mycoplasma mycoides subsp. mycoides SC type strain PG1T, the causative agent of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP), Genome Research 14(2):221–227, Feb 2004 | doi:10.1101/gr.1673304. Return to text.
  5. Human Genome Project FAQ, genome.gov, accessed 8 Apr 2021. Return to text.
  6. Hutchison, C.A. III and 22 others, Design and synthesis of a minimal bacterial genome, Science 351(6280):aad625325, Mar 2016 | doi:10.1126/science.aad6253. Return to text.
  7. NIST, Scientists create simple synthetic cell that grows and divides normally: New findings shed light on mechanisms controlling the most basic processes of life, nist.gov, 29 Mar 2021. Return to text.
  8. Wood, T.C., Genome decay in the Mycoplasmas,Acts & Facts 30(10), Oct 2001; icr.org. Return to text.

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