The Pope likes Synthia

September 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

A recent article in the Business section of the New York Times aims to explore whether Craig Venter’s approach to synthetic biology can be turned into something you would invest your pension fund in.  The story line is roughly that Venter has had a considerable impact in science, but, is he too much of a scientist to be a great businessman?  Why is it that his company, Synthetic Genomics, receives so much less attention than the recent pubication of the transplantation of a synthetic genome into a bacterium?

One reason — sorry, but I do have to say this — is that the media gets excited about science that can be written up as controversial.  In this case the implication that Synthia — as it’s called — was a new form of life created by man was enough to spark a feeding frenzy that bewildered many scientists.  (By the way, see our local synthetic biology blog, Oscillator, for a more balanced take on What Synthia Means to Me.).  And so it’s refreshing to see that in fact the Pope (that’s right, the Pope!) has no problem with Synthia; the Vatican praised the work, saying it did not regard the synthesis of DNA as the creation of life but as “substituting one of [life’s] engines”.

The question of whether whole-genome synthesis is needed, at least in the short term, is the most interesting one raised in the article.  George Church brings this up directly:  ““One of the things that is missing,” he says of Dr. Venter’s work, “is a clear articulation of why you would want to change the whole genome.””  That doesn’t seem entirely surprising to me.  If you clearly explained why you want to be able to replace the whole genome — for example, so that you can unpack overlapping genes and make them function truly independently, so that you can remove the unhelpful tendency of biological organisms to evolve around any restriction you put on them, so that you can minimize the “chassis” of the bacterium and maximize the amount of energy that’s being spent on making things that we (not the bacterium) find useful — then it would be really obvious that there is a huge amount of research to do before genome-replacement technology overtakes the more mundane forms of synthetic biology that focus on adding or replacing a handful of genes.  As the business community is focused on short-term growth, this might not be helpful for the fundraising prospects of Synthetic Genomics.

Venter seems to agree with this perspective.  ““I think it’s comical that I keep being referred to as a businessman,” he said. “What I’ve been successful in is finding alternate ways to fund research.””  Perhaps it’s good for business to be fooled, now and then, into investing in long-term research when they think they’re buying into a short-term business opportunity.  If nothing else, it probably gives them a new appreciation of the role of NIH and NSF in providing the raw materials for innovation.

Personally I suspect that Synthetic Genomics will take the low road — adding/replacing handfuls of genes — whenever they can make a useful product that way.  But the researchers who join the company will be inspired by the high road; and they will certainly contribute to discovering whether the high road is a feasible route. It’s a common pattern in biotech, and I don’t see why this should change with the change in the number of base pairs we can manipulate.  It worked for Genentech and Amgen, and Genzyme, and Biogen…  As for Synthetic Genomics, we’ll see.

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