They call the new cell ‘Synthia’: What is synthetic biology, and what, exactly, is Craig Venter up to?

The New York Times explains:

In the approach toward which Dr. Venter is driving, engineers would specify the entire genetic code of a cell — essentially the software that runs the cell — on computers, making design changes as if on a word processor. They would then press the “print” button, so to speak, and the DNA would be manufactured from its chemical components. The synthetic DNA would then be transplanted into an existing cell, where it would “boot up” and take control of the cell’s operations.


This is essentially what Dr. Venter’s team announced in May. It synthesized the million-letter genome of a simple bacterium, the longest synthetic piece of DNA produced so far, and transplanted it into a slightly different type of bacterium, which then began to replicate. A critic called the synthetic creature Synthia, a name that has started to stick.

And what fish, as it were, is Craig Venter setting out to fry via synthetic biology?

Answer: transforming the whole petrochemical industry. Here’s the New York Times again:

“Designing and building synthetic cells will be the basis of a new industrial revolution,” Dr. Venter says. “The goal is to replace the entire petrochemical industry.”

A new industrial revolution.

Think about that.

And it occurs to me that if you combine Craig Venter’s audacious biotechnology plans with KR Sridhar’s Bloom Box fuel cells, then you have two really good reasons to be hopeful about humanity’s collective economic, intellectual, and social future (prosperous and comfy people tend to be happy, nonfanatical, and peaceful people). Over the next century, science appears poised to bring us a Promethean world where energy is clean, cheap, and abundant, and where biology conforms to our whims. In other words, more than at any other time in human history, we shall be as gods, having stolen fire from heaven and the gnosis of life from our cthonian mother (Earth).

In short, if you tend to be a pessimist, cheer up. Your children’s future looks good. The secrets of life and energy that have kept human beings down for so long are on the verge of being deciphered. Here’s 60 Minutes on the Bloom Box (in case you haven’t heard about it):

And Part 2 of the 60 Minutes segment is here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to They call the new cell ‘Synthia’: What is synthetic biology, and what, exactly, is Craig Venter up to?

  1. When I heard about this, I noted that we have to think about the ethics of artificial life, and that no doubt the usual suspects will have a field day:

    Having said that, as a Science Fiction fan I think all is good, and thanks for reminding me that the future may in fact, be bright.

    (Although if largely oil-rich Muslim nations lose out to post-oil tech, perhaps there will be more poor religious people – and more fanatics? :/ Predicting the future is an arcane and complex art, perhaps.)

    Smart marketing of them to adopt a “friendly” name. What if they’d named it Metallica (Fritz Lang, not the band) or Frankenstein? 😉

  2. santitafarella says:


    Islamic civilization will have to change or die (not in the sense of being wiped out by the West, but in the sense of becoming irrelevant). Playing the old time religion tape over again will not be the answer to Arab Muslims’ problems. Peak oil should be a wake up call for Arab Muslims: going to college, using your mind, and learning to navigate pluralistic urban environments—not getting oil out of the ground and memorizing the Quran—will have to be your bread and butter a century from now.

    Traditionalist Muslims, like all of us, will evolve: the positive incentives for doing so will be too obvious to leave on the table.

    As for Synthia v. Metallica, I would say that these should be two of the 99 names of God.


  3. andrewclunn says:

    Good. Finally maybe I’ll get socks that self-repair their holes.

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