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Friday 25th May 2018

Synthetic living cell developed

25th May 2010

Craig Venter, who has made a fortune in genetics, claims to have created an artificial life form.

stem cell

The research could have profound implications for both medicine and bioethics.

Venter said that his creation was the first self-replicating species on planet Earth whose parent was a computer.

Monsignor Rino Fisichella, director of  the Pontifical Academy for Life at the Vatican, said that the official Roman Catholic church position on artificial cells was that, if they were used to treat disease, they were a good thing.

He said that Catholic officials looked at science with great interest, but that only God could create life.

Venter said that his cell was a philosophical advance as well as a technical advance, raising questions about the nature of life.

US President Barack Obama has asked the White House bioethics commission to complete a study of synthetic biology within the next six months.

Obama said that Venter's report raised genuine concerns.

Venter's technology could allow people to make vaccines and biofuels using microbes and other organisms as miniature factories.

Venter's research team is reported to have spent US$40 million on the technology that allowed them to make synthetic genomes.

After 15 years of work, the researchers were able to design genomes using a computer and assemble them as nucleic acids in laboratories.

The process the researchers followed involved sequencing the DNA of a single bacterium, then transplanting the sequenced DNA into a bacterial cell that did not have a genome.

The team used yeast as 'glue' for the thousands of pieces of DNA that came from its sequencing research.

Each piece contained 1,080 base pairs, 1,000 of which came from the original bacterium and 80 of which told the 'glue' how to join it to its partner strand.

Slowly, the researchers assembled the bacterium's 1,080,000 base pairs, then verified its integrity using computers.

Because no two natural genomes on earth are alike, the researchers could only check the integrity of their sequenced genes against a single bacterium, and not against the species as a whole.

And the synthesis process introduced mutations into the genome of the bacterium, despite the best efforts of the researchers.

Other deviations included a 'watermark' inserted deliberately into the DNA, which included a code for transcribing the English language using base pairs, and quotations by James Joyce, famous physicists, and even a URL for people to try to decipher.

Before the DNA could begin working, it needed to use parts of the bacterial cell in order to do what the researchers described as 'booting up.'

During the 'boot-up process,' the transplanted DNA made use of existing cellular structures, so the organism was not totally created in a lab.

When the DNA began to function, the bacterium began to reproduce.

Ron Weiss, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, who was not part of the research team, said that the transplanted DNA was a culmination of a series of impressive steps.

Daniel Gibson, Venter institute researcher and lead author of the research group's published findings, said that the cell's lineage was a computer.

Gerald Joyce, of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, said that Venter's technology was very powerful because it would eventually give scientists a sophisticated way of putting different genes into organisms.

Venter's dream is to be able to control the genome of a bacterium, designing it from scratch, and causing it to produce chemicals.

Venter, who takes trips around the world in his private yacht, has spent a lot of time analysing the DNA in sea-water microbes.

As a result of his private trips, he has a library of about 40 million algae genes, which he plans to use in order to make algae that can produce useful chemicals.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, said that the new technology was dangerous, and that Venter should stop all further research until sufficient regulations were in place.

Although the bacterium that Venter synthesised usually infects goats, its genes have been slightly modified to make it less harmful for goats.

Jim Collins, a bio-engineer at Boston University, said that he was worried some people might draw the wrong conclusions from the research, and that the scientists had not synthesised created life from scratch or created anything new.


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