Building the most basic operating system for lifeSynthetic biologist
Life runs on DNA software. Now it's time to find the basic operating system, says synthetic biologist
How has the definition of life changed during your lifetime?
Even when Watson and Crick published their structure of DNA in 1953 it wasn't settled that DNA was the genetic material. It has gone from that at the start of my life, to sequencing the first genomes and then writing the first genomes to prove that DNA is the basis of life.
Is there a single advance that has shaped your understanding of what life is?
When we were able to move the DNA from one cell to another, converting one species to another, that was the proof that life is a DNA software system. If you change the software, you change the species.
Why do you think people find the idea of life as an information system hard to accept?
Because we like to think of the complexity of things. When we sequenced the human genome, a lot of people were angry that we only had 22,000 genes instead of 300,000. That is more complexity than any of us could even imagine, but linear thinkers wanted one gene for each trait.
You're famous for building a synthetic organism from scratch. What was the point?
Starting with four chemicals to build DNA and then booting that up to create a living cell proves that we can reduce life to an information system.
But you inserted artificial DNA into an existing cell. Isn't that a bit of a con?
We're not trying to recapitulate the origins of life. Obviously, life evolved from much simpler systems, but in terms of trying to get to the next stages of evolution that is not very useful.
Now you're trying to build an organism with the minimal set of genes needed for life – what you call the "Hail Mary" genome. Why?
Understanding what a basic operating system looks like is essential. Then, we should be able to add components to evolve it into a new species. The first attempts have failed. But this is not an ambiguous area – either you have life or you don't. We still don't know what all the genes do, so you can't just design something totally from scratch.
Your projects, like coding your name into the genomes of your synthetic organisms, seem designed to provoke. Is that deliberate?
Nothing is done to provoke people. We're making artificial species starting from a very different point in evolution, and I feel that anybody doing that needs to watermark them, or we will lose track of the evolutionary history. Also, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this. We felt as passionate about it as artists signing their work.
Will synthetic biologists ever progress from tinkering with bacteria to radically altering complex organisms – even humans?
Working in the bacterial world can have a great impact – by changing things like food sources and potential fuel sources. As we move from relatively simple bacteria to ones with larger genomes, the complexity goes up enormously. So I don't think anybody is going to make synthetic humans any time soon.
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