On 1 April this year, the journal PNAS published an interesting article in which Swiss researchers described how they obtained a minimal artificial genome.

Obtaining minimal genomes, which contain only the genes that are essential to maintain the life of an organism, are one of the objectives of Synthetic Biology, as they can be used as a chassis on which to add different functions with medical, research or industrial utilities. The first organism with an artificial minimal genome was obtained in 2016. To that end, the investigators continued eliminating genes from a pre-existing genome until they were left with only those that the organism would require to live.

What is new?

The new study discussed here goes one step further in the strategy: instead of copying the essential genes, it rewrites them, eliminating any that are surplus and adapting the design to facilitate the artificial synthesis of the resulting genome. The method consists of rewriting the sequences to obtain “synonyms” that lack surplus genetic elements (such as alternative reading frames or control elements) while maintaining their function.

The resulting genome, called Caulobacter ethensis-2.0 (C. eth-2.0), has not been introduced into any recipient cell for now, so there is still no organism that functions under the direction of the aforementioned genome.

Artificial genome. Bioethical reflections.

From an ethical point of view, we find no problem with the production of these organisms, provided that the appropriate biosecurity measures are taken, as they may result in various benefits for humans, and may be useful in the study of genetic function. Nevertheless, it is worth commenting on the dissemination of this breakthrough in the media, many of whom have picked up the story in the form of alarmist headlines and articles, talking about scientists who “create” life and “play God”. In this respect, the advisability of using the term “create” in reference to these experiments seems questionable. In our opinion, it may lead to confusion. Thus, independently of the design novelties that humans may include in the genome, in no case is it a creation ex nihilo, from nothing, but which always starts from a pre-existing material. Perhaps the terms “design”, “production” or “obtaining” would be more appropriate, not only because they are true, but also to prevent unjustified concerns in the public.

Can these discoveries produce “synthetic life”?