Birth of the Synthetic Cell

Scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland have rocked the world with the creation of the first ever manmade cell. Although small in size, this feat is being hailed as one of the greatest scientific (and perhaps architectural) breakthroughs of this age.

Scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland have rocked the world with the creation of the first ever manmade cell.  Although small in size, this feat is being hailed as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of our age.

The team first used a computer to reconstruct the genomic sequence of an existing bacteria, mycoplasma mycoides.  They then selectively removed 14 genes from the 1.08 million letters of genetic code found in mycoplasma mycoides and added new nonfunctional codes as “watermarks”.  The new set of coding – “the software” – was fed through a DNA synthesizer that used four bottles of chemicals to produce strands of DNA.   The DNA strands were then recombined through host plasmids into an entire functional genome of 1.08 million base pairs.  This genome had the amazing ability to produce all the functionalities of a cell: to thrive; to make new proteins that had the ability to make all the other necessary cellular components – “the hardware”; and to replicate.

“It’s pretty stunning when you just replace the DNA software in the cell. The cell instantly starts reading that new software, starts making a whole different set of proteins, and in a short while, all the characteristics of the first species disappear and a new species emerges,” Venter said.

With this incredible feat of synthetic biology successfully undertaken, the possibility of adding new genes, producing new functionalities, eliminating undesirable functionalities, and shifting to a higher scale or more complex organism are not too far from becoming reality.

Not surprisingly, we here at Animal Architecture think that Architects can learn from this recent scientific milestone.  Ok, we’re not suggesting that architecture is as complex as the inner workings of life itself but, as systems of organization, the production of architecture and of biology both share a complexity that has arisen from simplicity and a constructive repetition of a few basic elements that follow an organizational logic.  If complexity arises from the software that creates something so complex out of few basic elements, what might be the “software” for architects? Scripting? Material properties? Program? Acknowledging that architecture often trails many years behind the innovations in art and science, can we envision a synthetic architecture? The relationship between biological and synthetic materials witnessed in the synthetic cell is very close to to many projects already posted here on Animal Architecture…

For more information about the synthetic cell check out this article from the Guardian.

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