In Vivo, In Vitro, In Venter...?

Is Craig Venter, the so called "bad boy of biology", about to announce the world's first synthetic lifeform? (or 'Syn' for short)... we don't know. According to New Scientist "rumours are circulating that his institute will soon unveil the first synthetic bacterium".

The staff at the Starship Venterprise (aka the J Craig Venter Institute - but it changes its name every few months) are notoriously tight lipped about this sort of thing but when the UK's Daily Telegraph asked whether the world's first synthetic bug was thriving in a test tube in the Venterprise's labs in Rockville USA, all Darth Venter would say is: "We are getting close."

Venter's financial backers are a little less reserved. At a recent Silicon Valley event Steve Jurvetsen of Draper Fisher Jurvetsen (who has invested in Venter's Synthetic Genomics inc) claimed that "within a year we'll see the creation of a bacteria-sized synthetic organism designed for either a biofuel or medical application."

And Venter's lawyers are certainly feeling confident. Yesterday ETC Group exposed their most recent patent application on a synthetic lifeform. While the patent is short on details of how to build a functioning Syn organism its clear on claiming a legal monopoly nonetheless. Claims 20, 21 and 23 of the patent on a 'minimal bacterial genome' claim a synthetic "free living organism that can grow and replicate". P 22 of the patent makes it clear that the synthetic genome of such an organism is "constructed hierachically from chemically synthesized oligonucleotides". Craig's lawyers grandly call his new species Mycoplasma Laboratorium. We suggest that "Synthia" might be a catchier name although the comment posters at Wired are undecided about that name.

Regardless whether Synthia is already waiting to surprise the world in some test-tube in Rockville, Venter himself is surprising nobody with this broad patent grab as his company attempts to become the "microbesoft" of synthetic biology. In a recent interview in Newsweek Venter boasted that the world's first syn organism could prove to be "a trillion dollar organism" that they would "definitely patent". No wonder Steve Jurvetson is so excited.

Advocates of an open source approach to Synthetic Biology are trying to shake off the implications of this patent, claiming there are still other routes and other 'non-synthetic' organism that they can use for their lab life-forms but MIT's Tom Knight acknowledges that "Its the philosophical stake in the ground that will really tick people off," (New Scientist again)...

Meanwhile there is a lively discussion over at Slashdot on the stupidity or otherwise of such a patent - worth checking out and joining in..