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Winter 1859

A single 30-day span begat much of modern biology

Robert L. Dorit

Evolving to Evolve

Of course, the entire biotechnology revolution provides a partial answer to the question raised above—yes, certain genes can function independently of their genome. I can clone the gene for human growth hormone into a bacterium and that bacterium will still produce working human growth hormone for me. However, taking one gene out of context and cloning it into an existing genome is different from knitting genes from different organisms together and expecting them to produce an organism that works.

I suspect that the ambitious agenda of synthetic biology will lead to powerful insights about the nature and origin of living systems. I am convinced that we will learn a great deal about the modularity of genes, and about the interactions among genes that make life possible. I predict that these synthetic organisms may actually be capable of surviving, and perhaps even of reproducing under the tightly controlled conditions of the laboratory. But what remains to be seen is whether these living forms we create in the lab will be capable of evolution. If we are to call them truly alive, our synthetic organisms will have to exhibit the capacity to adapt in response to changing conditions.

Existing organisms have in effect evolved to evolve, balancing their mutation rates to the vagaries of the environment and the costs and benefits of the accurate copying of genetic information. Synthetic organisms, if they reproduce and vary, will indeed necessarily evolve. But we may well find that their patchwork genomes will not yet have developed the subtle diplomacy that allows them to keep up with a changing world. Their lives on this Earth will thus be decidedly short by evolutionary standards. Yet much like copernicium or ununquadium, newcomer elements in the periodic table whose half-lives are measured in seconds (or even in milliseconds), the scientific value of synthetic organisms will not depend on their longevity. It will depend on their having lived at all.

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