Scientists in race to create artificial life

CRAIG VENTER’S company Celera Genomics has a slogan: “Speed matters — discovery can’t wait”.

And there’s no doubt that Dr Venter is a man in a hurry.

A decade ago, he turned the human gene mapping programme into a race, becoming the most controversial scientist of his day.

The biotech maverick and entrepreneur once competed with the publicly funded Human Genome Project to map the human genome, a race that ended in a draw in 2003.

This time around, the American scientist has gone where none of his colleagues has dared go before. He and his team just announced the world’s first successful genome transplant.

In layman’s terms, they have turned one species into another, paving the way for the creation of artificial life.

All this tampering with nature raises concerns about the unknown risks of artificial organisms and of an largely unregulated emerging science.

But those involved see it simply as giving nature a leg-up, by fast-forwarding evolution. Dr Venter says his institute is close to synthesising from simple chemicals an entire genome, 580,000 DNA units in length, of a small bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium.

If that genome can be made to take over a bacterium using his method, Dr Venter should be able to claim that he has madethe first synthetic life form.

The work is at the cutting edge of synthetic biology.

Researchers are working on ways to genetically modify human cells and understand the most fundamental mechanisms of life. This science is poised between hype and hope but critics say the field is progressing too fast for society to grasp. Some fear the technology could be used to create biological weapons or that something unforeseen may emerge from the laboratory. Others are concerned his institute’s efforts to patent their research could restrict scientific advances elsewhere.

Chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Arthur Caplan sees promise and peril in Venter’s work. “The techniques Venter has perfected are going to result in some very important products,” he said. “But we don’t really have in place an oversight system for this type of technology. We need to ensure that microbes aren’t going to escape into the air or down the drain. We also need to be alert to the fact that this technology can make bad bugs rather than useful bugs.”

Venter’s plan is to stitch together artificial chromosomes, proteins and building blocks to jump-start their designer microbe to life. He conceded this may be a long way away, but he said he has taken a key step towards that goal. His team, essentially, snatched the body of another life-form and invaded it with a new genetic code.

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