Yearly Archives: 2010

Life with a synthetic genome

If you haven’t already seen this plastered all over the news, Craig Venter’s team has created the first replicating cell using a completely synthetic genome.

The video of the press conference while a bit dry, is definitely worth watching

I haven’t read the paper yet, so this is a quick summary based on the conference and on reports elsewhere.

First to clear things up, this is not a completely synthetic life-form. Only the DNA of the life was synthesized outside of a cell and then assembled and inserted into a host cell (of another species.) The DNA was made of known sequences with a few added “watermarks” as Venter says. Even so, this is a remarkable accomplishment and if nothing else demonstrates that there is no special “vital force” in DNA that causes life.

What’s even more exciting about this is the technological breakthroughs the team had to make and the insights into what is necessary for life. For instance the number of genes that were “disposable” in an already minimalistic genome, the ability to grow the synthetic genome in a yeast cell, extracting it from there and then transplanting it into the host cell.

The “watermarks” are an interesting feature too. As I’ve gathered from the video, they’ve added the names of the scientists involved as well as 3 quotations in the genome. These messages are themselves encoded (as a kind of puzzle, I suppose.) Also, to make sure this added code doesn’t form proteins, another layer of encoding is used to insert stop codons. As Venter says, “a code within a code within a code.”

The funny thing though is that this code won’t last long if they continue to grow the bacterium naturally. Since the code by design has to be in non-coding “junk” DNA, it’s not going to be conserved evolutionarily. Point mutations will accumulate over time and since the organism has been designed to have a short life span, the code is bound to be garbled quite soon, maybe even before someone has time to break it. 🙂

I should have another post once I’ve grokked the paper and read some more of the commentary online.

Microsoft makes good stuff?

I’m writing this post using Windows Live Writer which is actually a pretty nifty piece of software to blog with.

It neatly detected my blog (given just the URL) and with my username and password, it happily downloaded the theme from the blog, so that I get a preview of what my post will look like as I create it. Even WordPress doesn’t do that yet although that will change in WordPress 3.0 (at least for the new default theme.) Your blog will need to support XML-RPC or Atom publishing to do this kind of cool stuff though.

What’s also cool is that the interface is blog-agnostic. I could be using it to post to a Blogger blog, a WordPress blog, LiveJournal or TypePad, not to mention Microsoft’s own Live Spaces and Sharepoint blogs.

What I’d really love though is for there to be an add-on for Firefox or an extension for Chrome, so that I could quickly open Windows Live Writer after selecting an excerpt or an image on a web-page or link. If I was using Internet Explorer, I could use the Live toolbar to hook into Live Writer, but no way I’m using that browser or another toolbar. I like my vertical space! 🙂

P.S. Almost 4 years ago, I had blogged about a Firefox add-on called Performancing which did just that. Sadly, the Performancing add-on seems to have died soon after and the site itself is now some sort of blog consultancy service.

Doctor Who and The pH below

After two episodes, I’m quite enjoying the 11th Doctor. Matt Smith seems to be a bit of David Tennant clone, but I think he should soon have a persona of his own.

This week’s episode, “The Beast Below” takes place in the 29th century. I won’t say anything more, but apparently in 800 or so years, we’ll be going back to using analog pH meters!

Doctor Who - pH meter

The Doctor uses a pH meter to save the day!


I had to do some shifting around with my hosting, so I thought I might as well make some long overdue changes too.

I got rid of the WordPressMU installation I was using. Of course with the upcoming 3.0 release of WordPress, that shouldn’t matter because they’re merging the codebases.

I merged the science and tech blogs that resided under a subdomain into this one. It meant I had to delete a couple of posts written by collaborators but that doesn’t matter since the whole collaboration experiment failed. I guess all of us were too busy to actually post here frequently.

The other big change I made was to move what used to be my anonymous personal blog that I’d been writing since 2003 into its own WordPress installation under a folder here. I had begun that blog on Blogger in August 2003 when I was still living in the US and back when Blogger didn’t have commenting! It was fun to go back and read some of my posts again, brought a few memories rushing back. I don’t plan to post there anymore, it’s now just an archive at

I’m still going to add a few more bells and whistles to this blog here and maybe I’d also post more often, I dunno. For now, the best place to find me usually is on Twitter or Facebook.