The creation of the “synthetic cell”, described as a “landmark” by one British expert, is a 15-year dream come true for maverick genetics entrepreneur Dr Craig Venter.
It has major implications for genomics, including the manufacture of artificial organisms designed for specific tasks such as making vaccines or cleaning up pollution.
But experts recognise that as Mary Shelley demonstrated in her famous novel, there are potential dangers too. Synthetic life could, for instance, pave the way to terrifying biological weapons.
Dr Venter’s researchers explain in the journal Science how they “re-booted” a simple microbe by transplanting into it a set of genetic code sequences that were built from scratch.
The genome was copied from the blueprint contained in Mycoplasma mycoides, a simple bacterium that infects cattle and goats.
After constructing short strands of DNA, the scientists used yeast cells as natural factory assembly lines.
The sequence was built in a step-by-step process. DNA repair systems in the yeast attached the pieces together, gradually lengthening the strands to finish up with a chromosome more than a million “letters” of genetic code long.
The final test came when the completed chromosome was transplanted into another bacterium, Mycoplasma capricolum, replacing its native DNA.
After a failed first attempt, the scientists brought the cells to life. Driven by the new genome, the bacteria took on the appearance and behaviour of M mycoides, generating different proteins and multiplying.
Describing the achievement, Dr Venter said: “This is the first synthetic cell that’s been made, and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome.
“This is an important step we think, both scientifically and philosophically. It’s certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works.”
Commenting on the breakthrough in Science, Professor Mark Bedau, editor of the journal Artificial Life, called it “a defining moment in the history of biology and technology”.
US biologist Dr Jef Boeke, from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, told the journal: “It represents an important technical milestone in the new field of synthetic genomics.”
British expert Professor Paul Freemont, co-director of the EPSEC Centre for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College London, said: “The paper... is a landmark study that represents a major advance in synthetic biology.
“The applications of this enabling technology are enormous and one might argue this is a key step in the industrialisation of synthetic biology leading to a new era of biotechnology.”
Dr Venter, who runs the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, came to fame when he controversially challenged publicly funded scientists working on the international Human Genome Project, the first attempt to produce a complete map of the human genetic code.
He set out to construct his own private version of the human genome, using a different “short cut” method, and succeeded. The race ended in a dead heat when both versions were published simultaneously in Science in 2001.
The research published yesterday marks the culmination of 15 years’ effort at a total cost of about €35m.