“The Ice-Nine Phenomenon”: Will Artificial Genomes Be a Boon or Lead to Mass Destruction of the Planet?

4-berkeleylabs Craig Venter, famous for his role in being one of the first to sequence the human genome and creating the first cell with a synthetic genome in 2010, created the artificial genome of a parasite and a pathogen. Will their creation lead to a technology boon, or as several pundits warn, spawn mass death and disaster?

In Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the "Fathers of the Atom Bomb," created invention of "Ice-nine" to serve a simple purpose: to freeze mud so tanks and soldiers could easily travel across wet and muddy surfaces.

Ice-nine consisted of a stable polymorph of water which would remain frozen at temperatures up to 45.8 °C (114.4 °F) instead of melting at the standard 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). Ice-nine was essentially a "seed crystal", brilliant in its conception, and "completely harmless," serving only to keep America strong by making it easier to win wars.

Unfortunately, "once Ice-nine escaped the laboratory and came into contact with liquid water, it first froze that body of water only to spread to nearby lakes, rivers and then the oceans, such that eventually the entire planet froze and became a solid block of Ice-nine.

Have Venter and friends presented the world with a genetic version of Ice-nine, asks the Journal of Cosmology in a feature: Artificial Life -Scientific Revolution?  Or the End of Life as We Know It: "What if this synthetic microbe or its artificial genes were to escape the lab? Should we be concerned? Or just amazed? Perhaps our amazement should begin with Venter et al's choice of microbe: Mycoplasma mycoides."

"Mycoplasma mycoides is a parasite. Mycoplasma is by definition restricted to vertebrate hosts. Several species of Mycoplasma are pathogenic in humans. Mycoplasma pneumoniae, for example, can cause pneumonia and other respiratory disorders and can kill the host. Mycoplasma genitalium is associated with pelvic inflammatory diseases. The Mycoplasma genus is unique in that it lacks a cell wall which renders most common antibiotics completely ineffective. Therefore, Venter and colleagues have synthesized the genome of a parasite which attacks and causes disease in vertebrates and which can resist antibiotics. They created a synthetic genetic weapon.

What if just one of these billion were to escape the lab and replicate another billion in a matter of hours? the article, Artificial Life -Scientific Revolution?  Or the End of Life as We Know It, asks: "What if this "artificial life" were to shed its artificial genes? Impossible?"

The article cites a case of genetic engineering gone awry in March of 1996 when it was reported by plant geneticists at the Riso National Laboratory in Roskilde, Denmark, that genes they had inserted into oil seed rape canola plants (to increase their resistance to the deleterious effects of herbicides), were subsequently transferred to nearby weeds which in turn became resistant to the various chemicals that were supposed to eradicate them.

What happened is that genetic copies of the genes inserted into the oil seed rape plant, exited the genomes of these plants and invaded and altered the genomes of nearby weeds. Since the weed and the canola plants do not mate, then the most likely means of cross-fertilization occurred via free horizontal gene exchange. Not only were these weeds "spontaneously cross-fertilized" but the weeds passed these new genes and this herbicide resistant trait to subsequent generations, according to Artificial Life -Scientific Revolution?  Or the End of Life as We Know It.

Horizontal gene exchange, as the article points out, is commonplace between bacteria, archae, viruses, and eukaryotes (which include humans): "The 'universal' nature of the genetic code makes every living thing on this planet ideally suited for acquiring and making copies of genes, transferring these genes to other species, as well as accepting foreign genes, and then later donating and transferring these genes, including their own genes, to yet other organisms Parasitic creatures are the most likely to acquire and transfer genes between species, and Venter et al synthesized the genome of a parasite, Mycoplasma mycoides, which targets vertebrates.

"For a variety of reasons Mycoplasma is resistant to various antibiotics. Horizontal gene transfer also plays a significant role in the acquisition of antibiotic resistance which can be conveyed to a new bacterial host. This is made possible via the exchange of plasmids (mini-chromosomes), and DNA which has been expelled from the bacterial cell and then transferred to the genomes of yet other microbes which then acquire the genes necessary to combat these toxic agents, even prior to exposure. Further, these genes interact with yet other genes to provide resistance even to newly invented antibiotics.

Artificial Life -Scientific Revolution?  Or the End of Life as We Know It stresses that "evolution is slow and is punctuated with bursts of speciation and mass extinctions. The evolutionary progression leading to humans took 4.6 billion years. Fully modern humans have walked this Earth for less than 50,000 years. In the last 30 years genetic engineering has not wrought havoc upon this planet; nor has it created mass mutations and nightmarish monstrocities that threaten to destroy life. And yet, time marches on. So far the planet is safe. But what about the future?

"The evolution of new species does not take place in small steps, as Darwin claimed, but in leaps after long periods of stasis. And with evolution, there is extinction."

The consequences of genetic pollution coupled with the eventual escape and proliferation of synthetic organisms and their synthetic genes, the article points out, may not be fully felt for another thousand years. So, yes, we have nothing to worry about. But for those of the future, it may already be too late.

Software engineer and technology pundit, Bill Joy, in his seminal essay "Why the future doesn't need us" sides with the Journal of Cosmology in his fears, writing "I suddenly remembered a novel I had read almost 20 years ago -The White Plague, by Frank Herbert – in which a molecular biologist is driven insane by the senseless murder of his family. To seek revenge he constructs and disseminates a new and highly contagious plague that kills widely but selectively.

"Self-replication is the modus operandi of genetic engineering,' continues Joy, "which uses the machinery of the cell to replicate its designs, and the prime danger underlying gray goo in nanotechnology. Stories of run-amok robots like the Borg, replicating or mutating to escape from the ethical constraints imposed on them by their creators, are well established in our science fiction books and movies. It is even possible that self-replication may be more fundamental than we thought, and hence harder – or even impossible – to control.

"A recent article by Stuart Kauffman in Nature titled "Self-Replication: Even Peptides Do It" discusses the discovery that a 32-amino-acid peptide can "autocatalyse its own synthesis." We don't know how widespread this ability is, but Kauffman notes that it may hint at "a route to self-reproducing molecular systems on a basis far wider than Watson-Crick base-pairing."


Casey Kazan via journalofcosmology.com and wired.com

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