Abiogenesis and related matters:

What is abiogenesis? 

How do things begin? 

Being in the field of education for about 60 years, I have seen closely the beginnings of several new educational Institutions, such as the IITs, the IGNOU and several Universities. Establishments of new towns and townships from Chandigarh to Milton Keynes fascinated me. I was in School and vividly remember the beginning of the Space age with the launch of the Sputnik on 4th October 1957, as well as the adoption of the metric system for currency and weights and measures ….. The metric system in weights and measures was adoptedby the Indian Parliament in December 1956 with the Standards of Weights and MeasuresAct, which took effect beginning 1 October 1958. 

How do religions begin? I have been fascinated with how new religions take birth. Unlike the formation of a company, society or even a political party, there seems to be no Act of Parliament or a set process to launch a new religion and get it legally recognised. 

But the most fundamental and intriguing question is how did life begin? As I have shared in some earlier posts, life is about emergence and complexity. But these are labels. If we look at the key elements of life the DNA/RNA, the proteins and the lipids they are all chemical elements and their combinations that we have a fairly good understanding of. 

How did life begin ? The origin of life from non-living matter(a video of 14 minutes): https://youtu.be/nNK3u8uVG7o

Link to article in Encyclopaedia Brittanica : https://www.britannica.com/science/abiogenesis

Synthetic Biology : 

Imagine a future where synthetic jellyfish roam waterways looking for toxins to destroy, where eco-friendly plastics and fuels are harvested from vats of yeast, where viruses are programmed to be cancer killers, and electronic gadgets repair themselves like living organisms. The possibilities of synthetic biology, or ‘synbio’,  are limited only by the imagination. Its practitioners don’t view life as a mystery but as a machine – one that can be designed to solve a slew of pressing global health, energy and environmental problems.

The front man for the field would have to be the audacious Craig Venter. In 2010 his team created the world’s first synthetic life form – a replica of the cattle bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. Dubbed ‘JCVI-syn 1.0’, its DNA code was written on a computer, assembled in a test tube and inserted into the hollowed-out shell of a different bacterium. Its creators embedded their names in watermarks in the DNA, along with two quotes. From writer James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” From pioneering quantum physicist Richard Feynman: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

For Venter this was just one of many firsts. He holds joint credit for the first sequencing of the three-billion-letter DNA code of the human genome in 2001; in 2007 he became the first human to have their individual genome sequenced.

In 2016 he announced the answer to the meaning of life.  It’s 473- at least for M. mycoides. That’s the minimal number of genes the bacterium needs to survive. Venter’s team discovered this by stripping down JCVI-syn 1.0 to create JCVI-syn 3.0. The leaner life form has about half as many genes as its precursor.

Venter wasn’t just motivated by intellectual curiosity. A pared-down life form might serve as a chassis on which to build something useful to humankind. Bolt on the right handful of genes and you could have an ecologically friendly microbe factory to produce drugs or biofuels or artificial meat.

Such ambitions might seem doomed in a world where people are terrified by far more modestly engineered organisms such as GM crops. But synthetic biologists are an optimistic lot. They are working hard to win society over with their vision of creating a smarter, greener, more sustainable world.

A good video ( about 30 minutes) about synthetic biology : https://youtu.be/u1NBSBJRA3M

Synthetic biology gets less attention than genetic engineering but practitioners use many of the same techniques. There are long-standing examples, like Golden Rice engineered to produce vitamin A, which could be tagged with either label.

Historically, genetic engineers have tinkered with organisms. Synthetic biologists have a far bolder mindset. As Polish geneticist Wacław Szybalski put it at a conference back in 1973: “Up to now we are working on the descriptive phase of molecular biology … But the real challenge will start when we enter the synthetic phase … We will then devise new control elements and add these new modules to the existing genomes or build up wholly new genomes.”

Finally, Szybalski predicted, the work would move to building “other organisms”.

Synthetic biologists, quips Vickers, “are largely biologists masquerading as engineers or vice versa”. While they work with biology – genomes (DNA codes), transcriptomes (parts of the DNA that are uploaded) and proteomes (what proteins are being made) – they like to translate that work into engineering concepts and language.

In genetics speak, for example, regulatory stretches of DNA are called ‘promoters’; they are in turn  regulated by ‘repressor’ or ‘inducer’ molecules. In synbio speak, promoters are called ‘switches’ and the molecules that regulate them ‘actuators’. Working circuits of switches and actuators are ‘logic gates’.

Is designing a tailor-made organism as straightforward as putting together some circuit components? No, says Vickers, life is much messier. “We would like to be able to treat biology like it’s an electrical circuit, but biological complexity is confounding much of the time.”

Synthetic biologists develop their projects through standard engineering cycles of ‘design, build, test’. The design phase involves computer modelling of the components’ behaviour. The build stage involves the genetic engineering.

Even the simplest biological organisms have DNA sequences no one entirely understands. Take Venter’s minimalist life form, JCVI-syn 3.0, with its 473 genes. While all these genes are necessary for the bacterium to live, the team – which has spent decades studying M. mycoides – has no idea what a third of them do. “As a synthetic biologist I find this so humbling,” Vickers says.

If the genetic logic of simple bacteria is mysterious, synthetic biologists are likely to encounter far more spanners in the works as they attempt to move up the evolutionary tree.

An international initiative “ the Yeast 2.0 project” is rebuilding the yeast genome from scratch. Think of it as building a custom model racer rather than tinkering with a stock car. By starting with the nuts and bolts, scientists may be able to overcome the tangled legacy of millions of years of evolution to engineer a super-sleek genome in which they know how every gene contributes to life.

At least, that’s the hope.

Life may turn out to be harder to tame than the synthetic biologists initially thought.

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to the two scientists who discovered and refined the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool. CRISPR allows for relatively simple editing of genes and could revolutionize medicine, agriculture and other fields.  First described in 2012, the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool has since proven itself one of the most valuable scientific discoveries of recent years. It can be used to snip out problematic genes, such as those that cause disease, and potentially replaced with something more beneficial. 

In just eight years, CRISPR has shown promise in treating a whole range of diseases, such as cancer, HIV, muscular dystrophy, certain forms of blindness and even ageing itself. 

The tool could also be put to work making hardier or more nutritious crops, for chemical-free pest control and for creating new designer bacteria that can perform a whole range of fascinating new tasks.

For kickstarting this groundbreaking field, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Charpentier and Doudna. This marks the first time a science Nobel Prize has been shared by two women.

Video ( ~18 minutes) about CRISPR and Nobel Prize 2020 : https://youtu.be/bkLvZwDaQLo

About mmpant

Prof. M.M.Pant has a Ph.D in Computational Physics, along with a Professional Law Degree, and has been a practitioner in the fields of Law, IT enabled education and IT implementation. Drawing upon his experience in world class international institutions and having taught in various modes of Face-to-Face, Distance Learning and Technology Enhanced Training, Prof. Pant is now exploring the nature of institutions which will be successors to the IITs, which represented the 1960s, IIMs, which represented the 1970 and Open Universities which were the rage of 1980s & 90s. He believes that the convergence between various media and technologies would fundamentally alter the way learning would be created, packaged, and delivered to learners. His current activities are all directed toward actual implementation of these new age educational initiatives that transform education in the post Internet post WTO era.. Prof. Pant, has been a Former Pro-Vice Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and has been on the faculty of IIT – Kanpur (the premier Engineering institution in India), MLNR Engineering College and Faculty & Visiting Professor - University of Western Ontario-Canada. He has been visiting scientist to research centers in Italy, England, Germany & Sweden and has delivered international lectures with about 80 papers published. During his association of almost 15 years with the IGNOU, Prof. Pant has served as the Director Computing and has been the Member of All Bodies (i.e. School boards, Academic council, Planning board, Finance committee and the Board of management). With his interest in Law, backed with practice of Law in a High Court, and his basic training in Science and IT, Prof. Pant has been particularly interested in the Cyber Law, Patent & trade mark issues, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues etc. and has been involved with many activities, conferences on “Law & IT” Prof. Pant is presently; • Advisor to Media Lab Asia - Chairman of working group on ICT for Education, chairman of PRSG handling projects on ICT for education. • Lead Consultant for an ADB funded project for ICT in Basic Education in Uzbekistan • Member of the drafting Group for India’s National Policy on ICT in education • Chairman of the group creating books for class 11 and 12 students on ‘Computers and Communication Technology’ appointed by the NCERT • Preparing a ‘Theme Paper” for the NCTE in the area of ICT and Teacher Training • Advisor and mentor to several leading Indian and Multi-national Companies in the area of education. Prof. Pant has in the recent past been ; • Member – Board of Management – I I T, Delhi for 6 years (two consecutive terms) • One-man committee to create the Project Report & Legislation for Delhi IT-enabled Open University • Advisor to the Delhi Government on Asian Network of Major Cities Project (ANMC-21) distance learning project in association with Tokyo Metropolitan Government. • Chairman Board of Studies, All India Management Association With his mission to create and implement new business opportunities in the area of e-learning & learning facilitation, Prof. Pant has promoted Planet EDU Pvt. Ltd., as its Founder & Chairman, along with a team of highly experienced and skilled professionals from Education & Training, Operations, IT and Finance.
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