8 October 2007

Geneticists on verge of creating artificial life

Agençe France-Presse
U.S. genome scientist Craig Venter has announced he is on the verge of creating the first ever artificial life form, hailed as a potential remedy to illness and global warming.
Geneticists on verge of creating artificial life

Genome spin-off: Venter became the first person to have their entire genome sequenced earlier this year, now his team may be close to success in the race to create artificial life. Credit: PloS Biology

WASHINGTON: U.S. genome scientist Craig Venter has announced he is on the verge of creating the first ever artificial life form, hailed as a potential remedy to illness and global warming.

Venter told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that he has built a synthetic chromosome, piece by piece using chemicals made in a laboratory, and is set to announce the discovery within weeks.

The breakthrough, which Venter hopes could help develop new energy sources to combat the negative effects of climate change, would be “a very important philosophical step in the history of our species,” he told the newspaper.

Heated debate

However the prospect of engineering artificial life forms is highly controversial and likely to arouse heated debate over the ethics and potential ramifications of such an advance.

Pat Mooney, director of the Canadian bioethics organization ETC Group, told the paper that Venter was creating a chassis on which you could build almost anything. “It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons.”

The bacterial chromosome which Venter and his team has created is known as Mycoplasma laboratorium and, in the final step of the process, will be transplanted into a living cell where it should “take control”, effectively becoming a new life form.

The single-cell organism, which ETC has coined “Synthia,” is piloted by a chromosome with just 381 genes, the limit necessary to sustain the life of the bacteria so it can feed and reproduce.

The new bacteria will therefore be largely artificial, though not entirely, because it is composed of building blocks from already existing organisms. The idea is to make it into a universal tool for biologists by according it the genes necessary to accomplish certain tasks.

The project, which Venter has been working on for five years along with a team of researchers, has been partially financed by the U.S. Department of Energy in the hopes that it could lead to the creation of a new environmentally friendly fuel.

“We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before,” Venter said.

A Venter spokeswoman however declined to confirm any breakthrough. “The Guardian is ahead of themselves on this,” Venter spokeswoman Heather Kowalski said.

“We have not achieved what some have speculated we have in synthetic life,” Kowalski said. “When we do so there will be a scientific publication and we are likely months away from that.”

Curious patent

Venter’s laboratory, the J. Craig Venter Institute, filed in 2006 for a U.S. patent on the organism, claiming exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic “free-living organism that can grow and replicate.”

The ETC group publicised the patent application, which would apply in the United States and 100 or so other countries, in June. “Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn’t even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life,” Mooney said in a statement at the time.

The group also added that “patent experts consulted by the ETC Group indicate that, based on the language used in the application, the Venter Institute researchers had probably not achieved a fully-functioning organism at the time of the filing.”

Nevertheless, “many people think that Venter’s company has the scientific expertise to do the job,” Mooney added.

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