Synthia, or Mycoplasma laboratorium, is the first synthetic organism to be created. It has a fully man-made genome, and is the product of the J. Craig Venter Institute.
Scientific progress in the 20th century was astronomical. Diseases that once threatened our lives such as polio, chicken pox, diphtheria, measles, pertussis, and tetanus have been reduced to a few minutes of discomfort as a result of a needle prick at a pediatrician’s office as a child. Smallpox as an active disease has been eradicated from the world. Antibiotics now battle bacterial infections in humans. Microscopes have been built that allow humans to “see” atoms. The human race has walked on the moon, discovered millions of therapeutic drugs, transplanted organs, isolated tissues, grew mammalian cells in dishes, and even cloned animals.
Along the way, new scientific technologies have always brought fear as a side effect. Powerful technologies that are capable of being used for good have an obvious possibility for an evil doppelganger. This evil side has reared its head in the past, and as technologies become increasingly more powerful, the fear of these negative effects grows too. Dolly, the first clone created from the cell of an adult mammal, brought an onslaught of ethics debates in 1997 that have continued since then. But, recently, human technology has made an arguably even greater and scarier leap.
Science has created the first completely man-made organism.
Its name is Mycoplasma laboratorium—Synthia for short. Scientists have been able to exchange genes between different species for decades and to transplant entire genomes for a few years, but creating a whole genome is something completely unheard of until now. Synthia’s creator, the J. Craig Venter Institute, completely built the microbe’s genome from fragments of man-made DNA. While the artificial microbe has made a stir since the J. Craig Venter Institute first claimed a patent for this creature in 2007, the successful creation of this organism was not announced until May 21, 2010. In 2007, the focus of discussions surrounding M. laboratorium was on ethical issues surrounding the idea of individuals or corporations owning entire species of living organisms. Today, the collective gasp of humanity has focused elsewhere—Synthia is alive and breeding.
ETC, an international organization created to keep an eye on scientific progress in light of maintaining human rights and ecological diversity, focuses on the double-sidedness of issues surrounding this novel organism. On the one hand, it describes how Synthia may become humanity’s “panacea”. Artificially created living organisms can be used to create fuels, produce food, and clean up the environment. In other words, Synthia could be the key to unlocking universal problems of climate change, the energy crisis, and world hunger. (Sounds like Miss America will have a run for her money, huh?) Unfortunately, on the other side of things, ETC describes Synthia as a different kind of key, one that can only open Pandora’s box. Jim Thomas, ETC Research Program Manager and Writer, comments that “Synthetic biology is a high-risk profit-driven field, building organisms out of parts that are still poorly understood. We know that lab-created life-forms can escape, become biological weapons, and that their use threatens existing natural biodiversity.” So, in short, Synthia may have the ability to create a world such as the one outlined in Michael Crichton’s scientific novel from 2002 entitled Prey, in which an artificial microbe escapes the lab in which it is created. Once in the environment, it forms swarms that gain the ability to self-replicate. But, instead of being a modification of a known bacterial species, Synthia is a completely novel one. One that is already endowed with the capability for self-reproduction! (What would Michael Crichton say to this?) While the implications of Synthia’s dark side are obviously enormous, much is still speculation.
But one thing is for certain. A new era in science has begun, and along with it, a new field has been born.
Synthetic biology—“a combination of chemistry, computer science, molecular biology, genetics and cell biology, used to breed industrial life forms that can secrete fuels, vaccines or other saleable products.”