Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds
The passage below has been adapted from an article by Clive Cookson and was originally published in the Financial Times, July 2012.
Craig Venter, king of the genome, has been uncharacteristically quiet for a couple of years since his laboratory created the world’s first synthetic life form, a microbe whose genes were made entirely from inanimate chemicals. Some critics downplayed Venter’s achievement in 2010 because he did not make a novel form of life. The project was a technical tour de force, a demonstration that scientists could move on from reading to writing genes, but it reproduced an existing microbe called Mycoplasma mycoides, with just a few “watermarking” additions to distinguish its DNA from the natural bacterium.
Now his teams are well on the way to making synthetic microbes distinctly different to anything in nature. “We have a design contest to come up with a genome designed completely in a computer,” Venter says. “Three different versions of the genome are being constructed now and we hope to know by the end of the summer whether any of these designs will work as a living cell.”
The designs are all attempts to find the “minimal genome”, the least DNA with the fewest genes capable of sustaining a free-living organism. The smallest microbial genome in nature belongs to Mycoplasma genitalium, with 525 genes encoded in 580,000 chemical “letters” of DNA. The question is how much DNA is truly essential for life and how much is unnecessary clutter resulting from undirected Darwinian evolution.
Some natural algae make liquid hydrocarbons similar to transport fuels, though not in the huge quantities that would be required to replace standard petrol and diesel. “It’s clear that production from natural algae could never approach the amounts we need, because they have not evolved to do anything with so much oil,” Venter says.
Although synthetic biology will be required, this need not involve redesigning the whole algal genome. Rather, he says, it may be better to supplement it by adding an extra synthetic chromosome designed for maximum fuel production. Always ambitious, Venter feels that he is just getting into his stride at the age of 65. Concluding our interview, he says: “We are trying to understand the fundamental principles for the design of life, so that we can redesign it – in the way an intelligent designer would have done in the first place, if there had been one.”
1. Which of the following would be the best analogy for Venter’s achievement in 2010, as the critics describe it?
A Recording a cover of an original song
B Painting an object one can see in front of them
C Building a functioning car out of spare parts and scrap
D Growing plants outside of their natural habitat
2. Throughout the passage, organic genomes are portrayed by Venter as
3. Which of the following could not be reasonably inferred about Venter based on information provided in the passage?
A He does not believe in god
B He believes in Darwin’s theory of evolution
C He is a leading expert in the field of genome research
D He is usually quite talkative
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