Living Synthetic Genome

Rooting around in Google news netted me with an amazing news item from The Guardian that astounded me. J. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison along with others at the J. Craig Venter Institute have created a genetic sequence on a computer and then synthesized it in pieces from chemicals. Then, like lego blocks, they assembled the pieces into a 1 million plus base pair DNA strand and replaced the DNA of a living Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium with it. And the cell is replicating on its own. Incredible. The new organism is Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and even though it is an organism with one of the shortest DNA genomes, it’s new synthetic DNA has, encoded within it, a self-identifying web page including the names of all the scientists who produced it.
This video explains the details far better than I could. Or you could use of the links above to learn more. Read this article about two of the key scientists to learn more of the human side behind this discovery.
Wow! This boggles the imagination at what could be in store in the next few decades. I’ve often heard it said that biology will be the revolutionary science in the 21st century. Breakthroughs like this could lead the way to that. Of course, we have to be very careful with containment and it sounds like the people at JCVI have been. Of course this exciting knowledge may be used by those less scrupulous. But, as always, with great power comes great responsibility.

Making Cellular Biology real with BioVision

Found mention of an incredible site last night while cruising the web. It was through a Ted.com video on David Bolinsky (which I recommend). You will, I think, get more of it if you can watch the ABC news cast on the BioVisions site first. Then you can watch the animation if you are interested enough. I will bet that you will be.
I have two degrees in biology and was an Instructor teaching first year biology at a University and yet I learned more about animal cell structure just watching this ten minute video than I did in months at school. Molecular or nano machines inside the cell were merely an idea. This video made them far more real to me.
This video should be required watching for every student taking science at the grade six level. This is the age targeted by many Summer Science camps for good reason. These children haven’t yet lost their sense of wonder in the world. Show them this video and they’ll be far more interested in biology than by any lecturing you could possibly inflict on them.

Biotype Interview, Dec. 1990

Interview with Professor Kraft von Maltzahn
Isobel Pearsall, the world renowned investigative reporter of The London and Tokyo Times, provided us with this interview on December 10, 1990.
IP Where were you brought up?
KvM I was born and raised in Northern Germany, what was until recently Eastern Germany, in a town near the Baltic coast, way up north. I lived there throughout my schooling until I went into the army for 2 years until the end of the war. I was drafted at 17, and when I got out I was 19.
IP What kind of an experience was that?
KvM Well that wasn’t exactly a pleasure trip. I was mainly at the Russian front, so I was glad when the war was over.
IP Why did you end up in the States?
KvM Well, I was finally taken prisoner by the Americans, this was in Bohemia. I was then released in Munich. I started to study at the University of Cologne when the universities were opened again in 1946. I was there for 3 years, and then went to Zurich, Switzerland, and then went to the States, to do my graduate work.
IP Is that where you were until you came here?
KvM Yes,I did my graduate work at Yale University: I was there for 5 years. When I finished my PhD, I got an offer from Dalhousie.
IP How did you like living in the States?
KvM That wasn’t really a very happy period either, since that was the time McCarthy was at the height of his power, hunting for communists in the United States, and anybody that he didn’t like, he persecuted: that was a very unhappy time.
IP Did anything happen to you?
KvM No, nothing happened to me, but because of these political tensions, I wasn’t particularly happy, so I tried then to find a position in Canada, and was then offered this position at Dalhousie.
IP Have you ever been back to your old home?
KvM No, but I’ve been back to what was West Germany several times. I always felt it was dangerous to go back to Eastern Germany when it was communist.
IP Do you have any relatives still living in your old hometown?
KvM No not really. They all moved to West Germany because the Russians took all their land – they were all landowners. Maybe now they will return.
IP How long have you been at Dalhousie?
KvM I think this is my 37th year.I came here in 1954.
IP Why have you stayed at Dalhousie all these years?
KvM I guess because I liked Nova Scotia, and Halifax, and in a sort of way I liked Dalhousie, though there was one time I almost accepted a position in Alberta, but I didn’t because there seemed to be no good reason to leave.
IP How has it changed here over the years?
KvM When I came here the Biology department had only 2 faculty members, a married couple. Dalhousie was a small place, it had only 2000 students. The department was split into Zoology and Botany, and I was appointed as the botanist. I also taught half of the introductory class. But then there was in the 60’s an enormous expansion, and I became then what was head of the department. I think it was 1963, and we really spent a lot of time with this expansion, so that included hiring of new faculty members, and also trying to get more space. Then we were in 2 floors of the Forrest building on the Medical campus. The drive was also on for more PhD programs and the Biology Department started a PhD program jointly with the Medical Sciences Departments. We started planning a new building- this present Life Sciences Centre. President Hicks, who died last night in a car accident, established a working committee on the Aquatron – Behavioral Sciences – Biology Complex, as it was then known. The chairs of Psychology and Oceanography and I were on this committee, and we spent a long time thinking about this building, but as you may have noticed, it never really became a Life Sciences centre, but 3 separate buildings. What I had in mind was that there would be a central library, and people would be able to meet there. I get the feeling that people don’t really meet in this building- there is no central focus to draw people together. I feel that departments in this university are too much separate units which have power in themselves, but do not share common goals.
IP Do you feel that it has really changed here since you started? Have the students changed, or the methods of teaching, for example?
KvM Our goals may have been clearer way back, focusing on undergraduate teaching. We were spending 7 months of the year just teaching, and the other 5 months doing research. Now there is much more emphasis on graduate teaching. The policies of granting agencies are much more competitive now, and so people have to carry out research all year round.
IP Do you think that teaching has deteriorated because of this?
KvM I think that perhaps we are trying to do too much, and that maybe the quality suffers somewhat. I’m not sure what choice the university has any more. I think the granting agencies determine more and more what is being done here, since they are so powerful.
IP What teaching are you involved in now?
KvM I teach Plant Design in the 1st term, and in the 2nd term I teach the course Man in Nature, which is really an interdisciplinary approach, and I have really devoted a good part of my time to that.
IP How did you get interested in Biology?
KvM As a boy I always wanted to study Chemistry, I think it was the influence of a particular person in the 1st year of my university studies, which changed my interest to focus on the study of plants.
IP What are your plans for the future?
KvM I think I am going to retire soon, and then I intend to spend more time on my own work, which is related to this man and nature question. I have tried to publish a book on this for years but I haven’t been able to find a publisher. As far as working, nothing will change, but I’ll spend less time with students and more time with myself.
IP Is there anything you’d like to say, before we finish?
KvM Well, I think the department is in good shape, and I hope more than anything else that the reasonably congenial and happy atmosphere that we have in this department is going to continue. That requires more than anything else that we respect each other, and that must consciously be pursued.

This interview by Isobel (last I heard she is no longer a reporter but has a consulting firm, Pearsall Ecological Consulting in Nanaimo) was done for Biotype. Kraft did go on to publish his book called Nature and Landscape in 1994. You can also find it here.

Biotype Editorial, Dec. 1990

Soapbox Warning! Raving Editorial Warning! Stay Clear!
Have you heard the latest? African elephants are being culled in Zimbabwe Nature Reserves by Park Wardens because of their population increases. Elephants are just too numerous for their own good. Or so we, the self-appointed keepers, think. We must decide whether we are farming these rare, beautiful creatures for our own outdoor zoos or whether we shall allow them their own space on this crowded world. Can we be the only species with property rights?
But let’s get back to reality for a moment. Let’s think… if there are too many elephants maybe there is something missing in the environmental equation. A handful of elephants a functioning community does not make. A community encompasses a multiplicity of competitors and predators among other elements. Perhaps with some predators and competitors as well as less protection from the “vagaries of nature” the elephant situation would balance itself. But that would be inhumane and messy; it is far better to shoot them and sell off their body parts at a profit. Would we ever be willing to run the risk and let natural communities stand without our hand in everything? I doubt it.
This is not an issue for us Canadians to become too complacent about either. We need look only to the vanishing wilderness of Canada. If a large and identifiable animal population is needed then the woodland caribou herds of Labrador and Quebec will do. They are being decimated by environmental degradation and destruction caused by NATO low-level flights, damming of huge tracts of land and mining. The coyote of Nova Scotia is an even closer example. We decimate their numbers, encourage their prey for our sport and then talk of stamping them out when they do not behave.
This is not about elephants or caribou or coyotes, however, this is about all life. I know that these problems are far more complicated than I make them out to be. It can be scary to be so responsible as a species, especially when we really do not know what we are doing. We shall survive, have no fear, we can survive anything with our technology. Well… perhaps not everything, perhaps not the loneliness and loss of wonder that is increasingly assured each time a species is destroyed.

I was the Editor of my Biology Department Newsletter called Biotype in the early 90’s at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and this is an example of one of my Editorials.