back to article US boffins synthesize self-replicating bacteria

US researchers have fashioned the first self-replicating bacterial cell, "creating new life out of already existing life." This momentous milestone — rife with both ethical quandries and immense potential — was reached by a team of two dozen researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JVCI) of Rockville, Maryland, and San …


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  1. hplasm

    May I be the first to welcome-

    Our Cyn-thetic Overlords


    Oh shiyut

    I just finished playing 'Prototype', that had a lot to say about the potential issues and threats. Hmmmmm

  3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Frack the fearmongers and the religio-confused

    Full yeast ahead!

    1. 0laf Silver badge

      I for one

      Welcome our new bread raising overlords

  4. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Unanswered questions

    Did they use lightning and the services of a hunchbacked servant?

    1. Lyle Dietz

      Unasnwered questions answered

      Yeth mathter. Itth the only way to make any progrethth on thith thort of thing.

    2. Michael 28

      Not lightning exactly...

      ..I'm sure some electrophoresis was involved at some stage, which does involve some high voltage gradients: Lightning is more Physical Sciences forte.

      And as for the "spinally challenged" technician, he/she is more likely to be the Safety Officer.

      PS .... can we have a smiley icon wearing Safety Specs???

      Remember what happened to Peppa Pig!!

      1. Dale Richards

        Smiley icon wearing safety specs...

        Like this?

    3. TeeCee Gold badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Unanswered questions

      Actually I think that all they needed to do was throw open the switches on the sonic oscillator and step up the reactor power input....three.....more......points!!!

      Possibly some maniacal laughter in there too.

  5. Sekundra
    Black Helicopters


    "their creations can be engineered with so called 'suicide genes'", giving them perhaps a four year lifespan to hijack a shuttle and head for Earth? (Tannhauser Gate icon please)

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We're so special

    While I would strenously object to having my dna rewritten without my consent, I really don't see why one should be allowed to meddle with dna at all but only so far as to exclude human dna. Just what is it that makes us special? Our love of riding short buses?

    As usual, the question boils down to where to draw the line. But it's trickier than that, even. Because if you allow viruses and bacteria to be meddled with, you quickly run into the fact that most of the cells in a human body aren't actually human, they're bacteria enabling us to live. And should the meddling go wrong, why, we could wipe our world of intelligent life. We'll be able to do so deliberately inside of half a century or so.

    And even if that wasn't the case, where'd you stop? Bunnies? Cows? On what grounds? Because we eat them? Because we can? What?

    I'd propose that consent is a useful concept here. But taking that the the logical extreme actually brings in the paradoxical situation that the only dna that boffins should be allowed to touch is human dna (obtained from those who consented). Or we could insist that any dna is fair game unless it's from someone (regardless of "being human") able to give consent, and then consent is required. But then we have to decide what the entry barrier to that select group is. There's plenty at the lower end of the human spectrum that haven't a clue what saying yes entails. So who are we to decide who gets to say no and who doesn't?

    In the end I'm afraid we'll just have to hope nothing too horrible happens until we have a good understanding of the implications, and then decide. Just like much of our science in the past, or even such simple things as driving a car. The first drivers didn't have driver's licences. Neither did the first pilots. As Burt Rutan rightly remarked in the context of space exploration, If we're not killing people, we're not pushing hard enough. That doesn't apply one to one to meddling with dna, and we have to be careful not to let our experiments out of hand. But as long as we can contain the damage within, say, a single lab, I'm willing to write off the casualties as cost of pushing forward.

    The thing is, you can be sure that we will not be able to do that, we never have. Lab leaks have happened before and have wrought havoc. So the question then becomes, how much damage are we willing to endure? How much risk of such is acceptable? Because no risk and no damage are no longer options, and haven't been for several decades. Discuss.

    1. 4a$$Monkey

      Re: consent

      Scientist: Ok hands up all the bacteria who don't want their DNA messed with.

      Scientist: No one? Well I guess we're good to go then. Igor! Fetch the artificial DNA vials!

      (0/10 Obvious troll)

  7. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD

    I find it really hilarious

    That one of the side panels on this page is the "Obama: We're off to Mars" one.

    While I have no religious or moral objections to this, if they're gonna be doing stuff like that, shouldn't they, like, be on another planet? Preferably in another solar system?

  8. Graham Marsden

    Throw the switch, Igor...!

    ... Yeth Marthter!

  9. Anonymous Coward

    And their next one will be able to infect your gonads

    I was rather hoping for a sort of electro-mechanical molecule manipulator Lego brick style but it seems they are using yeast to make the DNA.

    A quote from one of their fact sheets "Finally, all 11 segments are assembled into a complete synthetic genome as an extra chromosome in a yeast cell, by using yeast genetic systems"

    So it's all just plant breeding.

  10. brainwrong


    'They also assure the environmentally worried that their creations can be "engineered with so called 'suicide genes' that kick in to prevent the organism from living outside of the lab or environment in which they were grown."'

    Have they not heard of evolution? It will likely adapt to live outside the lab.

    And what to they mean "can be"? That's not very re-assuring either.

    1. Captain Save-a-ho

      Precisely the point

      If these bacteria experience genetic mutations as they reproduce (which virtually all life forms do), these "suicide genes" could mutate and all the worst fears of biological sci-fi can be realized. Surely they have to realize that potential and think (incorrectly) that the risk of mutation is not as great as the potential benefits.

      For all those downvoting this, wake up and smell the science. Genetic mutations are fact, not pure speculation.

  11. Nigel Brown

    Not this stupid box again.....

    It's life Jim, but not as we know it (not as we know it, not as we know it)

  12. Anonymous Coward


    The penultimate paragraph jumps straight into the tired old game of labelling any dissenters as extremists - thus killing any chance of reasoned debate. For the record I think it is a marvellous achievement, but the scope for an almighty fuck-up is obvious and so regulation must come.

    In order to properly regulate the use of this technology - to get value from it with minimum negative consequences - we need debate, not labelling.

  13. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Rewriting History .....with a Good Spooky Book and Bible*

    "The JCVI team also notes that it's of the strong opinion that "no applications of this work will or should be attempted in humans." "

    Which of course is a million light years away from saying that no applications of this work can or could be attempted in humans .... or hasn't already or isn't already being attempted by other teams of a contrary strong opinion.

    * Once upon a Time, in the Beginning, whenever there was Always Imagination in Nothing and therefore Everything to Chronicle and Build for the Future or Destroy in the Present .......

    1. Elmer Phud

      Back to school

      Can't see any problems with this -- kids are always being encouraged to make new friends.

      For more insight on how this will all work I can refer people to the 'Thursday Next' series of books and the various Dodo builds.

  14. Wommit

    But will they...

    be able to program something which understands AManFronMars?

    1. Anonymous Coward


      you have to be human for that.

  15. The Original Ash

    Hell, maybe...

    ... they could make it cure cancer!

    Grenade for the closing scene.

  16. Anonymous Coward


    Place a call to U.N.C.L.E, the forces of THRUSH have created a new bio weapon.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not at all impressed

    "creating new life out of already existing life"

    Isn't that exactly what happens when er people reproduce? (sure, that doens't usually involve synthetic dna, but wtf.) Though something catched my eye: "become energy-rich components of biofuels." On the other hand, also products of natural reproduction can - technically - be transformed to biofuels.

    1. John Angelico
      Thumb Down

      I had the ...

      Same thought as I yawned - what's the difference?

      And it takes so much equipment, time and <loverly gummint research> money, but I'll bet it isn't as much fun as the traditional way.

  18. Amir Shah

    I eats anything me

    This reminds me of a Superman comic I read when I was a boy. Star labs created a organism that would eat and digest dirt. It was used to clean drains and it worked really well, until, the organism say anything with a impurity as fair game and started to eat the city. There is a potential here to create a life form with no cure in nature and Kill gene or no Kill gene could have serious consequences. " Life finds a way" Jurassic park quote.

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: " Life finds a way"

      Yeah, 'cos given a choice between reasoned scientific debate and a quote from a Michael Crichton film, the Jeff Goldblum soundbite is obviously going to have the correct answer.

      Fail, 'cos you used the boffin icon on an argument based on a Superman comic and a fictional quotation.

    2. King Jack

      The cure is simple.

      A good squirt of Domestos, kills 99.99% of all know germs. Sorted.

    3. Rattus Rattus

      "No cure in nature"

      Yeah, cos they're really engineering new organisms to be completely immortal and unable to be broken down by the digestive enzymes of any other species. Something in nature (red in tooth and claw, remember) will eat damn near anything if given the opportunity. Everything has a predator, from the simplest bacterium on up.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wow, that's staggering

    Tinfoil hats all round for the nay-sayers. This is incredible stuff.

  20. Anonymous John

    The Andromeda Breakthrough (A For Andromeda sequel)

    I for one welcome our new nitrogen-fixing overlords.

  21. Mike Bell

    Fiery the Angels Fell

    "no applications of this work will or should be attempted in humans."

    Yeah, right. So we humans are happy with our lot: putting up with a lifespan that would bring tears to the eyes of a tortoise and being susceptible to all manner of infections and diseases as a consequence of blind evolution.

    These lads might have watched Blade Runner a few too many times to have them well spooked, but I for one hope that there *will* be some kind of endeavour to improve the genetics of humankind.

  22. Paul_Murphy

    Another step in our history.

    When I first read about this yesterday I had two conflicting feelings, the first was amazement that ths has been achieved - particularly in the US, and the second was worry over what this will mean for the future.

    I agree that we need to pursue these, and other, lines of research - carefully and with adequate oversight.

    All our (ie. human) efforts have been built on the earlier 'shoulders of giants', and there are so many developments that have been good and bad at the same time, machinery makes production of goods cheaper and faster, but puts people out of work, atomic energy is both deadly and life-saving, ever better weapons are still used for both attack and defence.

    This topic is so huge it's hard to know how to boil it down, but so many of our recent discoveries are inevitably heading us towards a better understanding of ourselves and our universe - just as a caveman would treat a mobile phone as a magical device, so our decendants might be looking back at us and wondering how we could possibly live in our brutal world, where pollution, starvation, diseases, energy shortages, deformity, ill-health and so many things that we take for granted are still the reality - maybe in their world these things and more have been wiped out, 'simply' because _we_ dared to explore what was possible.

    I must say that since my child has cerebral palsy my level of interest in these sorts of things is maybe a little more personal that it might otherwise be.

    With the right controls and understanding this is another small step towards our childrens future - lets not let them down please.


    1. Anonymous Coward


      changes the playing field- it means you need more people in different jobs. If it didn't, you'd have had incredibly huge unemployment in the UK for the last 150 years. But they require designers, maintenance staff, operators, people to design/operate/maintain other machines that produce lubricants, etc. Machines have lead to a massive increase in the number of people able to be employed in the UK.

      Yes, some people did lose their jobs. But most of them then got on with their lives and found other jobs- frequently related to the new machines.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: New Jobs

        "But most of them then got on with their lives and found other jobs- frequently gas station attendants, maids, food service or other menial jobs with severely cut wages... until the machine to replace even those jobs becames economical to make and marketable to sell."

        There, fixed that for you.

        The entire object of "standardized education" in "developed" countries is to create nice cogs for corporate positions where a machine can't be used due to economics, government legaslation, or marketing. The people in control didn't undergo such atrocities, and gained a real education on how to think, within the lines of their masters.

        Toddle on home to your flat; there is a public thought normalization reinforcement treatment... uh, sorry - episode of X-Factor on tonight. Your betters have a country to run, after all.

        1. Rattus Rattus


          we can't hobble technological progress simply to ensure work is still available for those who are trained in older ways of doing things. This would be as silly as holding back progress to prop up the business model of an industry sector that is unable to adapt to technological change (oh, hang on...)

          Maybe, as machines can do more and more for us instead of humans, we should look at the economic argument from a different perspective. We should work on how to make current (or improved) standards of living possible with a reduction in the amount of work required to earn the money. Maybe it's time to start planning toward the four-hour workday, or the three-day work week?

  23. max allan


    So, they've made a new super-yeast variant.

    Does that mean they can now make super-beer with it's own "breeding" capability. If so, we can skip the step of bottling it and feeding it to chavs and letting them breed. Miss the human devolution and go straight to evolution starting all over again from simple cells.

  24. Tim Bergel


    Are you sure about that? All the reports I have been able to find state that what they did was to sequence an existing, wild, bacterium, use a DNA synthesiser to construct an exact copy of the wild genome and then insert that into a (different species of?) bacterium whose DNA had been destroyed. And away it went.

    All very advanced stuff to be sure, but there is no design going on here.

    1. Chemist

      Re : Designed?

      You are correct but at the same time the knowledge of how to change the individual genes within a genome is routinely used already and has been for years. I can remember years (25 ?) ago a team in the lab downstairs synthesised the insulin gene. All that's happened here is that for the first time the entire genetic sequence of an organism has been synthesised. With the usual hybrid approach a modified gene is inserted by various techniques into the genome of an existing bacteria or yeast. This kind of happens at random and only some cells will be viable or useful. With this new technique a new sequence can placed in the exact position required.

      An analogy would be : take 1 million copies of a program - insert at random a new sequence of code - by chance some versions will still run but not run the new code whilst MAYBE the odd one will execute the new sequence. This new technique is more akin to writing the source again and incorporating the new code correctly.

      HOWEVER in the case of organisms the code is the easy bit. Synthesising an 'empty' cell to put your new genome into would be many orders of magnitude more difficult.

      The 'empty' cell needs a membrane with associated proteins, and protein complexes to transcribe the new genome into fresh proteins, generate energy, and LOTS of other things. As an example in more complex cells there are enzymes called topoisomerases which are needed to keep the vast length of DNA from getting well and truly knotted.

      A DNA sequence on it's own is impotent.

  25. Ken 16 Silver badge

    What does the beer taste like?

    Why else start with yeast?

  26. Michael 28

    BTW.. From a purely Nationalist point of view...

    ... i'm wondering who EXACTLY seems to be the most paranoid about these artificially-created-not-in-Genesis-type pandemics? ...and where are they likely to happen ? ( Quote from this guy says he will earn billions of us dollars as a result....)

    All I can say is thank FSM for the ash cloud.


    (Theme tune to Hawaii five -o plays in the background)

  27. Anonymous Coward

    Media whore whore's self to stupid media

    Given El Reg's very limited understanding of science (re: absolutely any of their climate change articles), it is unsurprising to see zero critical analysis of what has actually been achieved here. To anyone who understands molecular biology and biochemistry, the answer is actually not very much at all - this is barely one or two steps on from what most people do in the lab day-in-day-out and is far less impressive than some really challenging science such as that performed for Dolly the sheep (which, by the way, a reproduction of which is to all intents and purposes all that has been done here, barring a different approach to getting the genomic DNA for insertion and the nature of the host cell). However, as this is from Craig Venter, whose biggest success in this world is to be highly successful at promoting his "success" why am I not surprised?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down


      sounds like your post is an adopted opinion and a regurgitation of a skeptical article (like the NYT article) that asks envious scientists for their take.


      1. John H Woods Silver badge

        fail fail

        Not sure you are qualified to comment on any science if you think that someone who disagrees with something using a similar argument to other people who disagree with it automatically renders their opinion worthless.

        From my perspective - Genetics BSC, Biochem PhD - this is a technical tour-de-force but not very innovative. I remember the view of my PhD supervisor when Ventner first announced his intention to do stuff like this over 10 years ago - yes the DNA is amazing - but the biochemistry of the cell that translates it into life is the really amazing stuff. And we are nowhere near assembling that from scratch.

  28. archengel46
    Thumb Down

    Suck CO2 from atmosphere?

    I thought there were already bacteria/cells which did that? I think they are called plants...

    1. I didn't do IT.

      Re: Plants

      Yeah, All well and good... until Monsanto(tm) sues them for using genetic methods on plant bacterial cells. They have patents to protect, you know.

  29. g e

    suicide genes

    Yeah, make em all female or something cos THAT works, eh?

  30. David Pickering
    Thumb Up

    perhaps this is the most compelling solution

    to global warming, fuel and food production and drug/vaccine synthesis - i for one commend JCVI's efforts - cant wait for more news on this!

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    super beer? or the next paradigm shift? Eliminate the middle man!

    instead of a super yeast, how about a life form that creates the beer from whatever you've already eaten. If it can exist symbiotically in the human body, then one can avoid the brewing process altogether. Would save a fortune in government subsidies on alcoholic deadbeats. Panhandlers and illegal aliens both could spend their money on food instead of booze.

    next up, the artificial THC and nicotine photosynthetic organisms in a skin tattoo. More brain opiates for more easily duped voters.

    seriously, though. wow. This is very close to the same level of importance as fire, and splitting the atom. Technologies of epic destruction if misused and monumental benefit when applied for humanity's benefit.

  32. wawadave

    DNA wet hacking

    ""And should the meddling go wrong, why, we could wipe our world of intelligent life""

    No more dogs and cat OMG!!!

    As far as wet hacking goes we are not even at script kiddie level of wet hacking yet.

    What they have done is just simple cut paste.

  33. Joe User

    And shortly after the announcement...

    A nondescript gray goo was seen slowly enveloping the JVCI buildings in Maryland and California....

  34. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Suicide genes?

    Perhaps they should talk to Monsanto (or whatever they are calling themselves these days) about how well that worked on keeping their herbicide resistance genes locked into their (proprietary) corn strains.

    Just a thought.

    BTW re-writing the human genome. A substantial part of the human genome matches matches that from various viruses and bacteria. In one case the genes for coding part of the human placenta matches those used to construct the cell wall of a bacteria, presumably humans acquiring and passing this gene on produced healthier babies than those that did not. it would seem reasonable that we acquired incorporated these genes from them and *not* vice versa.

    Humans are *already* chimeric.

  35. Stuart Morrison
    Thumb Up


    "Throughout the course of this work, the team contemplated, discussed, and engaged in outside review of the ethical and societal implications of their work,"...

    .. and though "fuck it".

  36. Mussie (Ed)

    Hands Up

    Anyone else who read this and thought "were fucked now ?"

  37. John H Woods Silver badge

    Don't worrry

    A decade or so ago Ventner said he wouldn't do this because it would be unethical - it would enable the creation of super-pathogens. Then and now this was sheer hyperbole.

    Super pathogens are super because of highly evolved abilities to evade or combat host immune systems. Take a basic 'synthetic cell' and turn it into a pathogen and the immune system of any non-compromised host would rip it to shreds in seconds.

    So the danger from super-pathogens STILL comes from finding, selecting and dispersing existing evolved pathogens, rather than assembling them from scratch.

  38. Yesnomaybe

    Same old argument again

    I think this sounds a bit like the arguments around the possibilities of creating an Earth-destroying event by smashing particles in the Big Underground Contra Rotating Particle Smasher Thingy .

    In the end, the consensus was something like this: "If it is possible, then nature has tried it already, and we are still here." A cell with a DNA sequence so simple as the one we are talking about here, will have a snowballs chance in hell in a natural environment. Nothing to worry about yet. And yes, I'll be properly excited when they make the rest of the cell from nothing but raw materials.

    1. cs94njw
      Thumb Up

      The title is required, and must contain letters and/or digits.

      I guess this is the true issue with making life - what is the difference between the raw materials and that shell of the yeast bacteria? Is it scarily - not much?

      1. Chemist


        The difference between a synthesised stretch of DNA and somehow managing to make a viable, simple bacteria is absolutely GIGANTIC.

        A moderately good analogy is that of having a program code that describes in detail how to build an entire computer (from atoms and molecules) but not yet having the computer to run it on.

        The major step forward with is the is the knowledge that the new DNA is the only DNA in the cell and that all functions are being managed by it after the cells have been cycled a number of times

  39. cs94njw
    Thumb Up

    Basically, this is the first debugger

    They've written the code, and syntacticly it's valid, but we've never had the means to run that code and see where it falls over.

    Now we do!

    Question is - how do we step through the code, or attach to an existing process? And what form does a core dump take?

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