The biggest story in science last week had to be the announcement of the ‘creation of the first synthetic life form’. This is a bit of an elaboration of the truth in order to make a good headline (see last post for more examples of this), as the only synthetic bit was the genome of the bacteria, but let’s not belittle the achievement!
Dr Venter and his team say that they will be able to engineer bacteria that could benefit mankind by carrying out the breakdown of waste or clearing up carbon dioxide emissions. Some opposers of the breakthrough say that Venter is ‘playing God’, others are worried about what happens if these bacteria ‘escape’ and pass their artificial genome onto other bacteria, or if this technology gets into the wrong hands and is used to create bio-weapons.
There are many applications of this story when teaching biology. The actual technique used, at a basic level, is easy enough for GCSE students to understand and is a great application of their knowledge of DNA and chromosomal structure. The PowerPoint is an example of this. It shows the students how the procedure was carried out, testing their understanding of genetics along the way.
It is also useful when talking about the Human Genome Project as Venter’s team had to sequence the genome of the bacteria first before they could re-create its DNA from synthetic bases. Now we know the human genome – will it soon be possible to create synthetic human cells, maybe even artificial organs?
There is also opportunity for a debate on the ethics of this new procedure. Scientists can now create bacteria with a genome of their design. Is this an exciting step into the future or a frightening step too far? This page has some interesting viewpoints on this.