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Synthetic life forms can produce vaccines, gobble up CO2 and more, says expert

Designing new, synthetic microorganisms from digital computer code is not only possible now, but the new technology can be used to address such pressing world issues as global warming, energy and health, said world-renowned biologist J. Craig Venter, speaking in Statler Auditorium April 28.

Venter, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2007 and 2008, was part of the research team that helped sequence the human genome in 2001; he is also widely recognized for his role in creating the first synthetic living organism in 2010.

In his talk, "From Reading to Writing the Genetic Code," Venter focused on how his team constructed that first synthetic living organism and the potential roles that synthetic biology may play. Traditionally, biologists have sequenced the genomes of living organisms and analyzed the genome sequences via complex computer algorithms.

"What we have been doing for the last few decades is reading the genetic code. I call it digitizing biology. DNA is an analog molecule, and when we read the four letters of the genetic code and put back information into the computer, we are converting the four nucleotides to ones and zeroes on the computer," said Venter. "Now the challenge has been to go the other way, and start from those ones and zeroes to get life back out of the computer."

Over the past decade, Venter and colleagues have tried to answer basic questions about biology, such as the minimal number of genes that are essential to having a living, evolving system, and whether a synthetic chromosome could be constructed from digital data to address these questions.

"As soon as we went that way, we had a new set of questions. Could chemistry even permit making these large DNA molecules, and even if we could make the large pieces of DNA, could we move them up, or would we just have some large chemical structures? The answer is that we can do both now, this is what we recorded just about a year ago, when we constructed the first synthetic cell," he said.

Venter and colleagues published their paper about creating a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome in the journal Science in May 2010.

"Some of you are asking, why do this? It's great basic science, but there are some more compelling reasons," he said, noting that synthetic DNA can be used to develop genomics-based vaccines.

"The National Institutes of Health has funded my institute to create synthetic pieces of every known flu virus, so anytime we need a new vaccine, we can just take these pieces off the shelf, and go through the assembly and have flu vaccine stocks in a very short time," he said. "In the next year or two, you might get the first synthetic DNA vaccines."

Synthetic biology can also help address increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the global energy crisis, he said. "We're working on developing new synthetic organisms that use carbon dioxide as a feedstock instead of a waste product, and make fuel," he said.

"Synthetic biology is likely to be the No. 1 wealth generator for the next century," Venter added, citing a study from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Venter's talk was sponsored by the Lawrence & Judith Tanenbaum Distinguished Speakers Fellowship of Sigma Phi.

Farhan Nuruzzaman '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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John Carberry