Why we wash our hands: synthetic cells.

May 21, 2010

The organismMycoplasma mycoides

The disease:  Bovine pleuralpneumonia

Symptoms: respiratory distress, cough, cessation of rumination, anorexia, and severe pleuritic pain.  In cattle, buffalo and yaks.    How it works:  The genus mycoplasma contains many species, some that “infect” humans and cause disease.  So why am I writing about a bovine pathogen?  Primarily because scientists announced today (well, yesterday) that they made a “synthetic bacterial cell” and this is the species that whose DNA they used. It was manually copied, plunked into a dead cell from a different species and walah, that dead cell comes back to life as M. mycoides (que Vincent Price laughter).  I am waiting to read what smarter people say about this paper before I commit premature ejaculation, however I will say that this is big.  Huge.  Bigger than huge.  Secondarily, mycoplasma are fascinating because they have just about the smallest genome of any known living organism – to the point where they do not have the genes to make the four building blocks of DNA like every other cell can.

Where is it in your house: It probably isn’t.  But you might want to encourage the yaks in the back yard to cover there coughs.  Of the human-colonizing species: M. genitalium is, well, its all over your gentitalia.  M. orale is doing the breast stroke in all of our mouths (and ends up contaminating *many* laboratory cell cultures).

What you can do to protect yourself:  Don’t buy into what I predict will be histrionic responses of anti-science types about this “synthetic cell” being something to be worried about. Worry more about why I could probably find M. genitalium on the doorknobs in your house. And please, wash your hands.

Synthetic cell paper by Gibson et al.

A mycoplasma testing service

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