BIO/LONGEVITY: Stripping/Assembling/Creating "life" [was Re: Creating

Robert J. Bradbury (
Fri, 10 Dec 1999 05:43:20 -0800 (PST)

On 10 Dec 1999, Anders Sandberg wrote:

> "David Duddleston" <> writes:
> > Scientists Poised to Create Life
> >
> >
> > This one sparked alot of discussion on, reminded me of some of
> > the discussions that take place on this list. Except the people on this list
> > are alot more knowledgeable.
> I think we should inject our points of views and knowledge there from
> time to time. There are plenty of proto-extropians there and it is
> influential in the geek community.

  1. Its old news. I discussed it at Extro3, and again at Extro4. Glen Evans (Director of the Univ. of Texas SW Medical Center), discussed how to do it at the TIGR genome conference 2 months after Extro3. So it was a "new" idea among the "scientists" in 1997. The BBC is 30+ months behind the times.

The paper that seems to have started this was, to my surprise, published in 1996! See: "A minimal set for cellular life derived by comparison of complete bacterial genomes", PNAS 93:10268-10273, Sept. 1996., so any real credit should go to Arcady Mushegian and Eugene V. Koonin at NCBI for thinking along these lines.]

b) Ventner & the TIGR folks are *NOT* discussing creating life. What

they are doing is discussing is genome minimization, i.e. getting rid of any genes that Mycoplasma needs to survive in the "real" world, getting down to the minimal set of genes that can sustain self-replicating (SR) wet nanomachines (in a resource rich environment). This is a useful scientific exercise to see how well we understand the biochemistry of life. As I discussed at Extro4, this is a "Top-Down" approach, so it is a gross exaggeration to imply this is "creating" anything. It would be more accurate to say thay are "stripping" life.

c) I question whether even what I'm considering doing with Biobots

could be considered "creating" life since we will be using the toolkit that Nature has provided. We will be "assembling" life from "manufactured" components.

d) I believe the original instance of "assembling" life goes back

to the scientists who took apart and reassembled amoeba, as is discussed in "Nanomedicine", but in their case they didn't "manufacture" any of the components as I'm considering doing.

e) I think that the group at NASA that is trying to work out a new

biochemical system based on RNA and proteins (discused at the Foresight Conference this fall) *could* lay claim to be the first people to "create" life (since it will be an entirely new biochemical system for SR nanomachines).

Venter's sole claim to fame in all of this is that he assembled the bioethics team to look at the issues (a news grabbing but probably wise move considering the AgBio luddites). He is also probably pushing the TIGR team, that I suspect is doing the work with NIH money.

For those of you who don't know there was a strange "partnership" between Human Genome Sciences and TIGR (put together by Venter) where TIGR did a lot of bacterial genome sequencing (as a non-profit) that HGS was supposed to "commercialize". The non-profit/for-profit "twins" were effectively funded by a huge investment from Smith-Klein Beecham (bigPharma)). I believe the keeping the genomes secret until you could milk them for patentable stuff didn't sit right with some of the people at TIGR and some of their other funding sources so their relationship was severed several years ago. Since the divorce I'm guessing TIGR gets most or all of their money from NIH or DOE. TIGR is currently sequencing a number of genomes, including I believe human chromosome 10 or 11. Now interestingly enough, Venter is kind of doing a repeat of this strategy with Celera with the human genome, this time with the funding provided by Perkin-Elmer.

Kathryn, if you read this, you might want to investigate this a little. TIGR is in your neck of the woods and so is NIH. I think the NIH active grant database is someplace online so you might be able to determine whether they have a grant for "genome minimization". Or perhaps the the TIGR PR people can provide some insight. It would be great to see *how* they framed the grant application to do the Mycoplasma work.

Now comes the interesting question -- are the complete grant applications now "online"? At one point 5+ years ago I wanted to get copies of some grant applications but had to file an FOI application to get them. It took a long time because the process apparently allows the applicant an opportunity to black-out "personal" financial details and they can choose to take quite a while to do this.

More background: most of the NIH funding (now ~$17 Billion) gets distributed to public & private researchers via a grant approval process. Researchers fill out these big applications requesting from 10^4-10^7 dollars to do research for 3 years. The grants are approved (~30-40% of the time) or rejected by supposadly independent "secret" grant committees. The problem I have had with this in the past is that the last time I investigated it, there seems to be no way the public can

"oversee" this process.  NIH is currently in the process of
"reforming" the grant approval process to address some of the
"problems", such as charges of "croonyism", but I don't think
they are going to address any public "oversight" issues. (And you thought Science didn't have politics...)

If it turns out that TIGR is using public money for the project it would be highly educational for us to understand what angle they used. I'll lay good money on the table, the grant title was not:

"A Project to Create Life"

Interestingly enough, if people keep talking about it as "creating life", one of the congressional hotheads will surely try to pass a law preventing the use of public money for "creating life"... Worth keeping our eyes open for, since this would put a *serious* drag on the research necessary to get us cells that serve as organ-blasts, i.e. engineered cells that can be rapidly grown in the lab into hearts, kidneys, etc. that don't require embryos (and so avoid that whole pit).

Anders has a point though, when I saw the number of comments on this item on Slashdot, I rolled my eyse and said, "s*** I don't want to wade through that many pages of people who don't know what they are talking about". But being realistic, though its a dirty job, some of us should do this. Perhaps I'll post part of this to that thread.