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Scientists Develop ‘Artificial Life’

May 21, 2010

U.S. researchers have developed the first bacteria cell controlled by a synthetic genome.

“This is the first synthetic cell that’s been made,” lead researcher Craig Venter told AFP News.

“We call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer.”

The researchers said it now hopes to use the method it has developed “to probe the basic machinery of life and to engineer bacteria specially designed to solve environmental or energy problems.”

The study carried out by the J. Craig Venter Institute said the method could be used to design bacteria specifically to help produce biofuels or to clean up environmental hazards. 

“This becomes a very powerful tool for trying to design what we want biology to do. We have a wide range of applications (in mind),” Venter, co-author of the first sequencing of the human genome in 2000, told AFP.

The team synthesized the 1.08 million base pair genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides, created from four bottles of chemicals that make up the components of DNA.

They also added DNA sequences to “watermark” the genome to distinguish it from a natural one, in an attempt to overcome any controversy about the possibility of creating life from scratch.

They also imprinted the names of 46 scientists on the genome along with its own website address. 

“We do start with a living cell which we transform,” Venter told a later press conference, adding the cell had now gone through a “million steps of replication” and was now frozen in a freezer.

“This is an important step we think, both scientifically and philosophically. It’s certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works,” he added in a statement.

He said the team had engaged in discussions about the ethical implications for their work.

In 2008, Venter’s team announced that it had chemically synthesized a bacterial genome, but it was not able to activate the genome in the cell during that time.

The team booted up the synthetic genome to create the first cell controlled by a synthetic genome.

Potential applications include producing algae to clean up carbon dioxide.

Researchers also hope to work on techniques that would help speed up the production of vaccines and to make new food ingredients and chemical substances.

“The ability to routinely write the software of life will usher in a new era in science, and with it, new products and applications such as advanced biofuels, clean water technology, and new vaccines and medicines,” the institute said on its website.

“Continued and intensive review and dialogue with all areas of society, from Congress to bioethicists to laypeople, is necessary for this field to prosper.”

Image Caption: Negatively stained transmission electron micrographs of dividing M. mycoides JCVI-syn1. Freshly fixed cells were stained using 1% uranyl acetate on pure carbon substrate visualized using JEOL 1200EX transmission electron microscope at 80 keV. Electron micrographs were provided by Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California at San Diego.

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