Why we wash our hands: synthetic cells.

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


About SubOptimist

I am an Associate Professor in the Science Department at Georgia Perimeter College, Clarkston. I teach introductory biology courses at both the majors and non-majors level in addition to microbiology. Previous to that I spent 7 years as a postdoctoral researcher on different viruses. While I don't miss being on the "grant treadmill", I think better when I write and miss writing up data for papers and grants; this blog helps me with that a little. And sometimes my kids' insanely funny and cute antics need to be shared with the world. Any view expressed in this blog is that of me personally and not Georgia Perimeter College or the GPC Clarkston Science Department.
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