A New York Times article published on May 13th 2016, claimed that it is possible to create “a Synthetic Human Genome.” In the article penned by Andrew Pollack, there was another claim that “all the DNA contained in human chromosomes could be manufactured.” We will explain the irrationality and invalidity of such a claim using scientific evidence and prove that DNA cannot be created out of thin air.
Indeed, the drafters of the article must have been aware of that fact as there are some remarkable points in the article published in the New York Times. For instance, George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, said “The project was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes.” After all, as it is known by everyone that it is not possible to synthesize the human DNA containing three billion base pairs out of thin air, the project which had initially been called “HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project”, was then changed to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.” Despite all of these changes and explanations, the statements placed in the sentences of the article attempt to suggest that “a human being can now be created.” That being said, let us look into the fact that DNA is the product of a supreme creation we have yet to understand and that it is not possible to create a living being out of nothing.
How Much Do We Know about the DNA Code System?
Above all, it should be noted that the information in the DNA is voluminous and the DNA is essentially a databank of the human body. The studies on this subject generally consist of predictions which evaluate or analyze the existing information. This study, which was the subject of the article in the New York Times, has not begun yet; it is still in the progress stage, in other words, it is being developed by means of discussions. Dr. Jeremy Minshull, chief executive of DNA2.0, a DNA synthesis company, stated the following in regard to the study in its progress stage: “Our ability to understand what to build is so far behind what we can build.”
Mankind is yet to identify the unique information composed of three billion base pairs which form DNA. The studies on DNA have yielded good results; however, they are extremely inadequate.
For instance, today, with the epigenome studies, it has been revealed that certain parts of the DNA have a role in the activation of certain genes. It became apparent that the DNA with all its codes as a whole is not composed only of genes; rather, the DNA has a separate code system controlling genes. Thanks to the control system called “epigenome”, certain genes are activated or deactivated for scheduled tasks. The presence of the epigenome clearly indicates the preparations for pre-planned and defined tasks. In this way, DNA enables a living being to survive in different times and conditions; for instance, sex hormones that are produced with the beginning puberty in humans. These studies, known as “epigenetic”, are still carried out on microorganisms in particular.
The gene regions encoding proteins refer to a creation far more complex than our level of knowledge . It is not possible to interfere with or change the genes. Each protein appears to be a nano-factory operating perfectly. The intervention in the plans coded in the genes of these factories at the molecular level would result in a catastrophe for the cells.
As can be seen in the scientific studies that will be presented in detail below, the studies examine the results obtained after the genes are added or removed as a whole or displaced without the codes of the genes being changed. In other words, the potential advantages and disadvantages of such a transformation can be seen through experimentation. The claim in the article is that a DNA code, even a better one, can be formed over again and that is an issue that should be emphasized due to its unreasonableness.
Why cannot we consider computer encoding and the DNA codes as equal?
Is it possible to write DNA codes out of nothing, just like writing codes in computer programming? There is a very clear answer to this: No!
What is done today in the laboratories and known as “genetic engineering” is merely transferring the genes from one organism to the DNA of another organism or to displace the base pairs in its existing DNA. Otherwise, writing any information from scratch out of nothing is not even a matter for discussion.
As is known, the operating system of a computer consists of certain mathematical codes controlling the operation of technical components. This is a technical language, which is composed of 1's and 0's, and the electric current travels between the circuits based on the corresponding commands. The DNA is located inside the cell and is a chemical code system that manages the functioning of the cell. The information pertaining to which protein will be produced, under which conditions and in which amount is written in the part of the DNA that encodes proteins and are called “genes”. Although we have now identified the location of the genes in various living beings, this is a still an ongoing process. Their functions become more evident when they are damaged, primarily by mutations. In short, mankind is still striving to learn the information described in the DNA.
The Current Attempts to Produce Synthetic Cells are merely the Duplication of the Genes
The on-going studies on microorganisms in the laboratories involves the process of obtaining the DNA fragments from an organism, duplicating them inside a PCR device, and transferring them into the same or another microorganism. According to this method, the genes remain unchanged, so the codes are duplicated in the form that they operate in the nature. Or else, a brand new DNA code is not written out of scratch.
Now, it is possible to enable the DNA to produce various chemicals when certain genes are incorporated into the DNA of a microbe. This method is still employed in the production of some vaccines.
The US oil company Exxon has funded attempts at biofuel production in bacteria by the Craig Venter Institute, to which the company granted financial aid of $ 600 million dollars. These attempts aim to produce a minimal cell that can produce chemicals on demand whose DNA could be rearranged. In this regard, Dr. Craig Venter stated that he performed a study on a diseased gene of the DNA in a microbe for the first time in 2010. Based on this method, Dr. Venter removed and duplicated the DNA of a bacterium and placed it in another one. The target bacterium produced all of the proteins and organelles based on the detailed description of the transferred DNA. To this end, Dr. Venter selected a bacterium, which leads to an infection in goats (Mycoplasma Mycoides). He extirpated a total of 14 pathogenic and disease-causing genes before transferring the DNA to another bacterium, thus rendering the targeted bacterium into a new benignant one. (Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome, Daniel G. Gibson et al., Science 329, 52, 2 July 2010; DOI: 10.1126/science.1190719)
Dr. Craig Venter explained the study in detail as follows:
‘We developed the method of genome transplantation, which allowed us to introduce M. mycoides genomes, as isolated DNA molecules, into cells of a different species, M. capricolum. In this process, the M. capricolum genome is lost, resulting in a cell containing only the transplanted genome. In 2010, we reported the complete chemical synthesis and installation of the genome of M. mycoides JCVIsyn1.0. This genome was an almost exact copy of the wild-type M. mycoides genome, other than the addition of a few watermark and vector sequences. (Design and synthesis of a minimal bacterial genome, Clyde A. Hutchison III et al. Science 351, 25 March 2016; DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6253)
As can be seen, although this study was covered in the news stating that a “synthetic bacteria is manufactured”, it does not refer to the production of an artificial living thing from scratch. In response to the claims that a new living being has been created, Prof. Dr. Gerald J. Joyce from the Scripps Research Institute said, ''This is not true, of course; the resulting microorganism is based on an existing biological life form.” Jim Collins, a bioengineer at Boston University, stated that “my worry is that some people are going to draw the conclusion that they have created a new life form. What they have created is an organism with a synthesized natural genome. But it doesn’t represent the creation of life “from scratch" or the creation of “a new life form.” In regard to this study by Craig Venter, a geneticist at Caltech said that “He has not created life, only mimicked it.” (NewYorkTimes, May 21, 2010, page A17, Synthetic Bacterial Genome Takes Over a Cell, Researchers Report, http://nyti.ms/18O1A03)
There are still studies in progress at the Venter Institute. The results of another study led by Dr. Craig Venter were published on March 25th 2016 in Science Magazine. The synthetic cell obtained at last (JCVI-syn3.0) had a total of 473 genes and was described as “an organism with the smallest genome that can be cultured in the laboratory.”
The functions of 149 genes among them are not known yet, but they were used compulsorily since they were found to be vital for the survival of the organism. This is, of course, an indication that the mankind is still in the process of understanding the functions of the genes.
Mankind is forced to employ the DNA and its existing genes in their current form. The sequence of the amino acid chains of the encoded proteins is incorporated into these genes; furthermore, there are certain genes encoding the three dimensional form of the protein. For that reason, the studies carried out on DNA aim to understand how such perfect information would be useful and to utilize the information in the same way. It is not possible to write a new code, let alone produce a new protein. Let us clarify this subject by giving examples from the studies carried out on this subject:
Genetic Engineering in Medicine and Agriculture
Genetic engineers are engaged in the replication of the genes, the combination of the genes in different living beings or the transfer of the genes between living beings. All of these works are always based on the existing information.
For instance, productivity is increased by means of the use of some bacteria or yeast cells that can be genetically intervened with. Indeed, it became possible to produce agricultural products more efficiently through these processed microorganisms known as GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) by public. These microorganisms, defined as vector, transfer the genes placed into themselves to the DNA of the target plant.
Apart from agricultural use, this method is also employed in medicine as well; these microorganisms in question are able to produce insulin that is used by diabetes patients.
As is seen, the studies on genetics do not involve the formation of any code from scratch or the production of some unprecedented gene. Genetic engineering only allows for the transfer of an existing gene from one organism to another.
CONCLUSION: The studies on the DNA regulation do not mean
The process, which is deliberately phrased as “DNA creation” by some media organs, can be implemented only through existing proteins or genes, or DNA chains or fragments already existing in living beings. Creating a material from scratch, out of nothing, is out of the question.
The project mentioned in the article published in the New York Times will be based on the methods in other studies on DNA regulation. Otherwise, it does not involve the production of an artificial human genome synthetically, or in other words, artificially or doing so from scratch.
The studies on genome yield are considerably important and useful results for the mankind. For instance, it will of course be useful in terms of human health and for a longer lifespan to produce a genome free of those genes related to certain diseases or mutated ones. However, this will never mean the creation of a new human or an organism. The ability to create is only possessed by the Almighty God, Who has created molecules and proteins, and gave life to the cell.