Issue 4 of the Front Line Genomics magazine is now available online. It includes an interview with Craig Venter who gave a much anticipated talk at their recent Festival of Genomics conference in Boston. Front Line Genomics kindly allowed some of their previous interviewees (which includes me) to pose some of the questions. Here's mine:
KRB: What do you see as the limits of synthetic biology? Could we assemble a functional eukaryotic genome, and what are the practical applications of such technology?
JCV: That’s a great question! The limitations will ultimately be more society limitations, ethical limitations, and standards rather than technology. I think a synthetic single eukaryotic cell would be very straightforward to do today. Various groups of scientists have been trying to build the yeast genome. It’s kind of like rebuilding a house one brick at a time, but they’re making a synthetic version of yeast. That’s not quite the same as writing the genetic code and then booting it up as we did, but that’s just because of the limitations on writing the genetic code now.
I think understanding what makes a multicellular organism, and all the regulation associated with that, are so far away from design that we’re going to have to learn a whole lot more biology before we get to that stage of deliberate design. I think about 10% of the genes in our designed synthetic bacterial cell, are of unknown function. All we know is that you can’t get life without them. That problem expands tremendously with eukaryotic cells. If you extrapolate to the challenge of interpreting the human genome, we only understand a tiny fraction of the human genome today.