In an impressive breakthrough, biologists successfully expand the genetic alphabet of a living organism from four to six, opening up all kinds of possibilities for everything from pharmaceuticals to new life. “‘This is a very major accomplishment in our efforts to inch towards a synthetic biology,’ says Steven Benner, a synthetic biologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution who was not involved in the study. ‘Many in the broader community thought that Floyd’s result would be impossible to achieve.'”
By way of Follow Me Here, the NYT’s Nathaniel Rich examines the promise, challenges, and ethics of reviving extinct species, and beyond:
“What is coming will go well beyond the resurrection of extinct species. For millenniums, we have customized our environment, our vegetables and our animals, through breeding, fertilization and pollination. Synthetic biology offers far more sophisticated tools. The creation of novel organisms, like new animals, plants and bacteria, will transform human medicine, agriculture, energy production and much else. De-extinction ‘is the most conservative, earliest application of this technology,’ says Danny Hillis, a Long Now board member and a prolific inventor who pioneered the technology that is the basis for most supercomputers.”
By way of Dangerous Meta, researchers figure out a way to manufacture embryonic stem cells without an embryo, thus clearing the path for future research in that direction unhampered by abortion politics. “The discovery could be the key to cure the incurable – from heart attacks to severed spinal cord to cancer—and open the door, some day, to eternal youth.“
“Our findings are a reminder that life as we know it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine,” Felisa Wolfe-Simon, an astrobiology researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey, said.“
Whoa. NASA announces it has discovered a strange new bacteria in California’s Mono Lake that use arsenic instead of phosphorus, previously considered indispensable to life. “It gets in there and sort of gums up the works of our biochemical machinery,’ ASU’s Ariel Anbar, a co-author of the Science paper, explained.
Big doings? Definitely — The existence of these viable microbes suggests new biochemical possibilities for life on distant (or even not-so-distant) planets. But Discover‘s Ed Yong advises caution: “The discovery is amazing, but it’s easy to go overboard with it…For a start, the bacteria – a strain known as GFAJ-1 – don’t depend on arsenic. They still contain detectable levels of phosphorus in their molecules and they actually grow better on phosphorus if given the chance. It’s just that they might be able to do without this typically essential element – an extreme and impressive ability in itself.“
Update: “As soon as Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. ‘I was outraged at how bad the science was,’ she told me.” Hold the champagne: Slate‘s Carl Zimmer surveys the scientific pushback, and it is considerable. “‘[N]one of the arguments are very convincing on their own.’ That was about as positive as the critics could get. ‘This paper should not have been published,’ said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.”
O brave new world that has such bacteria in it: Scientists unveil their first synthetically-created, self-replicating cell. “Although the cell is primitive and lacks its own membrane, the techniques developed to create it promise groundbreaking advances in gene engineering and the rise of designer genomes. The achievement also raises ethical questions, not only about the creation of artificial life but the legitimacy of patenting it.”
“‘This raises a range of big questions about what nature is and what it could be…Evolutionary processes are no longer seen as sacred or inviolable. People in labs are figuring them out so they can improve upon them for different purposes.’” A front-page story in today’s WP announces we’re on the threshold of completely synthetic life — as in 2008 — made from enhanced or even artificial DNA. “Some experts are worried that a few maverick companies are already gaining monopoly control over the core ‘operating system’ for artificial life and are poised to become the Microsofts of synthetic biology…In the past year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been flooded with aggressive synthetic-biology claims.“
A quick note on Tuesday’s State of the Union: I actually think Dubya has delivered some well-crafted speeches (1/23) in the past, even if I disagree with almost all of their content. This wasn’t one of them. Except for the “America is addicted to oil” line (which Jimmy Carter basically said over 25 years ago) and the “human-animal hybrid” goofiness (which, as Crooked Timber points out, might mean trouble for diabetics), there wasn’t a single memorable moment throughout, just more of the same “9/11” and “freedom, yeah” grandstanding. (And Kaine was no better — I like to think I’m more interested in politics than most people, and I was bored stiff after a minute or two. Nice fireplace, tho’.) If the White House was looking for this address to reverse their ailing fortunes, a la Clinton in ’98, my guess is that they failed. (Pharyngula link via Now This.)
In celebration of a quarter-century of Science Times, the paper ruminates on the 25 questions currently driving science, while Alan Lightman ponders the motivations that fuel scientists. I’m not sure if the likes of Stephen Hawking are really contemplating Atlantis, but there’s some intriguing stuff here.