Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.
The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as Monday at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.
Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be "a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. 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".
The Guardian can reveal that a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Mr Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already constructed a synthetic chromosome, a feat of virtuoso bio-engineering never previously achieved. Using lab-made chemicals, they have painstakingly stitched together a chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code.
The DNA sequence is based on the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium which the team pared down to the bare essentials needed to support life, removing a fifth of its genetic make-up. The wholly synthetically reconstructed chromosome, which the team have christened Mycoplasma laboratorium, has been watermarked with inks for easy recognition.
It is then transplanted into a living bacterial cell and in the final stage of the process it is expected to take control of the cell and in effect become a new life form. The team of scientists has already successfully transplanted the genome of one type of bacterium into the cell of another, effectively changing the cell's species. Mr Venter said he was "100% confident" the same technique would work for the artificially created chromosome.
The new life form will depend for its ability to replicate itself and metabolise on the molecular machinery of the cell into which it has been injected, and in that sense it will not be a wholly synthetic life form. However, its DNA will be artificial, and it is the DNA that controls the cell and is credited with being the building block of life.
Mr Venter said he had carried out an ethical review before completing the experiment. "We feel that this is good science," he said. He has further heightened the controversy surrounding his potential breakthrough by applying for a patent for the synthetic bacterium.
Pat Mooney, director of a Canadian bioethics organisation, ETC group, said the move was an enormous challenge to society to debate the risks involved. "Governments, and society in general, is way behind the ball. This is a wake-up call - what does it mean to create new life forms in a test-tube?"
He said Mr 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".
Mr Venter believes designer genomes have enormous positive potential if properly regulated. In the long-term, he hopes they could lead to alternative energy sources previously unthinkable. Bacteria could be created, he speculates, that could help mop up excessive carbon dioxide, thus contributing to the solution to global warming, or produce fuels such as butane or propane made entirely from sugar.
"We are not afraid to take on things that are important just because they stimulate thinking," he said. "We are dealing in big ideas. We are trying to create a new value system for life. When dealing at this scale, you can't expect everybody to be happy."
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/ ... matechange
US scientist heralds 'artificial life' breakthrough
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Controversial celebrity US scientist Craig Venter has announced he is on the verge of creating the first ever artificial life form which he hails as a potential remedy to illness and global warming.
Venter told Britain's The Guardian newspaper Saturday that he has built a synthetic chromosome using chemicals made in a laboratory, and is set to announce the discovery within weeks, possibly as early as Monday.
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.
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 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 US 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 told AFP.
"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."
Venter's laboratory, the J. Craig Venter Institute, filed in 2006 for a US 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 publicized 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.
http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5hI3 ... f4gMNwo8QA
I think this is great! Read up on Ray Kurzweil " The Singularity Is Near" and also James Gardner "The Intelligent Universe" ... Things are happening that may be bad or good, just depends on where we take it, but it shouldn't be avoided just because it has a bad potential. We will progress in a Quantum Evolution that is unstoppable, it's just what naturally happens when a species' progresses. We will eventually tap into the cosmic building block blueprint of how all things are made and then we will create just as intended..
At least this is my view.