Aristides Patrinos is the Greek scientist behind the creation of the first synthetic bacterial cell by J. Craig Venter Institute. Dr. Patrinos is currently the President of Synthetic Genomics Inc, the company that funds most of J. Craig Venter Institute’s research. Before he was the director of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research overseeing human and microbial genome research, structural biology, nuclear medicine and health effects and global climate change. Being one of the most respected scientists in his field he has received numerous awards and honorary degrees, including three Presidential Rank Awards and two Secretary of Energy Gold Medals. Dr. Patrinos talked to us about the benefits of his recent discovery, education in Greece, and ethics in science.
What does your new achievement (activating a cell with a lab made chromosome) means for us (people who are not scientists)?
It means a new era for biotechnology because it gives us a much more powerful tool to apply for solutions to the major challenges we face in medicine, energy, and the environment. They include far more effective vaccines, better and cheaper biofuels and biochemicals, and new ways to clean up the environment such as the current spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Does this mean we can create artificial life and in what form? How close are we?
The scientific accomplishment we reported last week was a proof-of-principle that DNA is the software of a cell. The DNA was synthesized chemically to match the DNA of an existing organism (call that A) and was then placed into the cell of a related organism (call that B) inactivating the host genome. The invading genome booted up the cell which eventually assumed all the characteristics of A. Keep in mind that these are single cell organisms. Very small but very much alive.
What can be the benefits and applications of artificial life?
I gave some examples above. Especially designed microbes can also be used for targeted therapies such as delivering specific chemicals to internal organs and changing metabolic rates. Keep in mind that our body is composed of 100 trillion cells but we also have at least that many microbial cells on us and within us. Influencing them in specific ways can lead to new ways to cure diseases.
Will we ever be able to create a human being? Is that the scientists goal?
I hope not, and it is certainly not our goal. Such things are just in the science fantasy realm.
As a scientist do you face ethical challenges in your work? What kind?
It is always a good idea to be humble and always consider the ethics of what one pursues. Every new discovery or invention can have both positive and negative applications. We should always be vigilant and make sure that benefits always outweigh the dangers and the proper safeguards are in place. Such is the case for synthetic genomics and the opportunities it presents to us.
Do you think advancing science is always to the interest of the scientist?
It is for all the scientists I have known over the years.
Do you believe in a higher power? God? Religion?
I do and I am a Greek Orthodox Christian.
Do you go to Greece often?
As often as I can. Usually about three times a year.
What part of the country are you from?
My ancestors hail from Chios but I was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt.
Why the best Greek scientists -like you- are always found outside of Greece? Do you think that Greece doesn’t have the tools needed for people like you to advance their science there?
There are many excellent scientists in Greece and with the proper resources and encouragement can match whatever Greeks accomplish overseas. Greece has had its share of problems because of historical and geopolitical circumstances. Hopefully, the country can emerge from the current debacle and help the European Union match the scientific prowess of the U.S.
You studied in Greece and abroad. How would you compare your academic experience (as a student and researcher) in Greece vs. the US.
I was very lucky to receive a terrific (and free) education at the National Technical University of Athens (Metsovion). It was long and tough but it gave me the basic knowledge to breeze through graduate school and pursue my research interests. My teachers at Metsovion were superb and I will remember them fondly for as long as I live.
Do you want to add something?
Hang in there, Greece! Better days are ahead.