Encyclopedia Ocelotica: bespoke bacteria – “a new form of life”

Scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli

Tucked away at the back of the science pages of a handful of broadsheet newspapers last month was a nice little story about how scientists have created the world’s first living organism that has a fully synthetic and radically altered DNA code…

Wait… what the what now?

Yes, that’s right, scientists at Cambridge University have quietly worked out how to create a new form of life – incredible.

Almost as incredible is the fact that this has been eclipsed by the front page coverage of the demise of the Jeremy Kyle Show.

 In a two-year effort, researchers at the laboratory of molecular biology have redesigned the entire DNA of E.Coli bacteria – to create a synthetic living organism – an achievement of staggering proportions.

The DNA coiled up inside a cell holds the instructions it needs to function. 

But scientists have found that much of the information is superfluous (as far as they can tell).

 After geneticists made 18,000 edits to the E.Coli’s existing code, the rehashed biological code was then chemically synthesised and used to replace the organism’s natural genome – resulting in a microbe with a completely synthetic DNA code.

 Known as Syn61, the new bacteria is a little longer and grows more slowly than normal but is able to survive.

 The new bacteria shares many similarities to other E.Coli but it survives on a smaller set of genetic instructions.

 Amazing and of course very clever – but what’s the point of it all? Well, such designer lifeforms could create virus-resistant organisms – because their DNA is different and more difficult for invading viruses to spread inside them.

And the advancement could also pave the way for the creation for further organisms that could be used to produce useful enzymes, proteins and drugs.

This is, on the face of it, great news isn’t it?

Well yes, and no.

Because viruses are notoriously annoying and refuse to play along with the rules. 

A highly virus resistant organism could just as likely act as an unwitting training programme for the creation of a new super virus – as it adapts and evolves to overcome the resistant designer organism. 

Designer DNA also presents huge ethical considerations. 

What happens when the same bio-technology is applied to more complex life forms…? Crops or even farm animals with entirely re-drawn genetic make up to improve yeald and disease resistance? Or how about designer pets… or ‘God’ forbid human babies. 

Critics would argue that it’s a short step from ‘designing’ out genetically inherited conditions to tweaking cosmetic features…

And what if unscrupulous agencies wanted to take it a step further and design a ‘super’ human? Would that be a genuine form of evolution? I don’t know the answer, you’re going to have to ask a chillingly intelligent genetically redesigned child. 

But then we know what they would say…