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Scientists create a living organism

By Clive Cookson, Science Editor

Published: May 20 2010 18:23 | Last updated: May 20 2010 18:23

Scientists have turned inanimate chemicals into a living organism in an experiment that raises profound questions about the essence of life.

Craig Venter, the US genomics pioneer, announced on Thursday that scientists at his laboratories in Maryland and California had succeeded in their 15-year project to make the world’s first “synthetic cells” – bacteria called Mycoplasma mycoides.

The bacteria’s genes were all constructed in the laboratory “from four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information on a computer,” he said.“We have passed through a critical psychological barrier,” Dr Venter told the FT. “It has changed my own thinking, both scientifically and philosophically, about life and how it works.”

The research – published online by the journal Science – was hailed as a landmark by many independent scientists and philosophers.

“Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny,” said Julian Savulescu, ethics professor at Oxford University. “This is a step towards ... creation of living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally evolved.”

The synthetic bacteria have 14 “watermark sequences” attached to their genome – inert stretches of DNA added to distinguish them from their natural counterparts. They behaved and divided in lab dishes like natural bacteria.

M mycoides was chosen as a simple microbe with which to develop and prove the technology. It has no immediate application.

But scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics, the company funding their research, intend to move quickly on to more useful targets that may not exist in nature.

They are particularly interested in designing algae that can capture carbon dioxide from the air and produce hydrocarbon fuels.

Last year Synthetic Genomics signed a $600m agreement with Exxon Mobilto make algal biofuels. “We have looked hard at natural algae and we can’t find one that can make the fuels we want on the scales we need,” Dr Venter said.

The researchers built up the synthetic genome of M mycoides, with its million chemical letters, by stitching together shorter stretches of DNA, each about 1,000 letters long. They then transferred the completed genome into the shell of another bacterium M capricolum whose own DNA had been removed.

The transplanted genome “booted up” the host cell and took over its biological machinery. After 30 cell divisions, there were billions of synthetic bacteria in the lab dishes – all of them making exclusively the biological molecules associated with M mycoides.

Experts warn of the risks as well as the benefits of synthetic biology. “We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse,” said Prof Savulescu.

Views: 60

Comment by John D. Boyden on May 20, 2010 at 8:04pm
WOW great KS
Comment by Ursula Kochanowsky on May 20, 2010 at 8:28pm
You just found out about this??
It was on TED ages ago http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/craig_venter_is_on_the_verge_of_c...
Comment by A.V.Koshy on May 20, 2010 at 9:25pm
how did this change life kevin?
Comment by Nick Heyming on May 20, 2010 at 9:29pm
Ursula, that Ted talk is from 2 years ago when he declared his intention to create synthetic life. 2 hours ago, he announced that he was successful in his mission.

And Koshy, this is a big deal. There are many philosophical and religious implications to man-made life forms. Not to mention the potential for real-world applications, and disaster...
Comment by Ursula Kochanowsky on May 20, 2010 at 9:32pm
As far as i'm concerned, the moment you create a few steps that are right within your reach, that once stepped will create, then you've already created. Its simply a matter of time.
Comment by Ursula Kochanowsky on May 20, 2010 at 9:42pm
I'd like to see garden veggies that can out compete weeds, live in the harshest conditions and grow all by themselves...
Comment by Kevin DiVico on May 20, 2010 at 10:17pm
Nicks assertion's are correct, the implications of this (if verified and true) will be far ranging... and with the amount of personal discontent in the world , let alone the US this could give rise to all sorts of problems...
Comment by Julio Cesar Corona Ortega on May 21, 2010 at 5:42am
And so, the first Homunculi are born.

I fully agree with nick 214724.446554%. This is both one of the most exciting and frightening things humanity has ever accomplished. And it IS a big deal. Perhaps, an ever bigger deal than we realize.
Comment by John D. Boyden on June 20, 2010 at 10:27pm
Yup, Julio This is the 2010 Atomic bomb. Will it be used for good or evil. The answer of course, is yes.


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