Scientists Create E. Coli With Entirely Synthetic Genome

This is pretty interesting. My first thought was “is this really a good idea”, but should I be concerned?

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Not sure why, but every time I see this headline, I read it as “Scientists create Wile E. Coyote”.

In any case, I hope somebody plans to do some medium-to-long term evolution experiments with this new strain. I’d be very curious to see what the long term impacts of the new reduced codon system are.


It is now possible for someone to get the sequence for smallpox and synthesize the entire genome. Of course, this has been possible for the last 15 years, at least. A functional polio virus was fully synthesized back in 2002, as an example.

As of now, the technology isn’t mature enough to easily synthesize a large eukaryotic genome, so I wouldn’t fear lab made humans or custom made mammals for the moment. Even with a ~4 million base genome they had to make it in small pieces and stitch it together, and bacterial chromosomes are a lot simpler than eukaryotic chromosomes. However, I think this is raising a moral question in the same way that the advancement of AI has triggered moral questions. At some point we may have to ask if we are okay with custom made species, or the resurrection of extinct species like the mammoth and passenger pigeon.

I’m more concerned that they could somehow create a bacterium that proved to be dangerous.

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That can be done with much older technology that has been around for 30 or 40 years. Scientists have been able to insert virulence genes into bacterial genomes through restriction cloning into plasmids and transfer of the gene into the bacterial genome through homologous recombination. I have done this many times, albeit with non-virulent genes. If some mad scientist did want to create a super-virulent strain of E. coli, it is completely doable without needing to fully synthesize an entire genome.

Of course, this probably doesn’t lessen the concern you are feeling.

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I wouldn’t say I am really feeling concerned, because I really don’t understand it :slight_smile: My intent was to ask you guys if I should be concerned, though basically figuring there probably is no reason to be. It sounds like the answer indeed is “no”

The scientific community is very aware of the dangers of genetic modification, and they are concerned about abuse. This is why research oversight is such a big deal because it keeps scientists accountable. If a scientist wants to make a more virulent bug they have to give a good reason for doing so, and be accountable to multiple layers of administration and oversight while doing that research. However, there is nothing stopping a “rogue” scientist from going down the wrong path.

You should be as concerned about biotechnology as you are of any other technology. There is a very real possibility of abuse and harm, but there are lots of people keeping an eye out and doing what they can to stop it. You should be as concerned about lab made superbugs as you are of a rogue terrorist group setting off a dirty bomb or hackers crippling our power grid.

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