Ireland could take lead in designing organisms

IRELAND could be to the forefront in designing new organisms in the drive to create life-saving drugs as well as energy sources, leading bioscientist Dr James McInerney has claimed.

He believes that US scientists who have succeeded in creating the first synthetic life form will make it easier for their Irish counterparts to convince investors to spend money on developing new products.

“We could have a centre where leading pharmaceutical companies and start-up companies could get a bioinformatics analysis and then go and make new drugs and other kinds of biotechnology products,” said Dr McInerney.

“For Irish scientists it should mean that it’s easier to generate new products that will make money and make jobs,” he said.

The senior lecturer and principal investigator in the Molecular Evolution and Bioinformatics Unit in the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, is currently involved in establishing a spin- out company, GeneOrigins.

“We’re taking everything we’ve learned over the last decade and we are going to turn it into a bioinformatics services company,” he pointed out.

He is confident that the company will be successful. “It’s just starting right now but our first indications are that there’s a demand for it. There are similar companies around the world that have started up recently and have become successful as result. It’s venture science.”

Professor of Microbiology at University College Cork, Fergal O’Gara said Dr Craig Venter and his team in California had transferred a synthetic genome — a collection of genes — into a primitive bacterium. He said the scientists took large fragments of genetic information containing hundreds of genes and stitched them together, creating a complete new genome.

“It is a very important breakthrough because it demonstrates the potential of synthetic biology. This is the start and I think it has wonderful potential if used correctly,” he said.

Prof O’Gara said the US group had been talking about the possibility of using organisms as a new source of energy using selected blocks of genes. “That will definitely be happening within the next decade, as will the development of new vaccines,” he said.

UCC law lecturer Deirdre Madden said her main concern was that the new synthetic organisms were being developed by commercial companies.

“We have to rely on their responsibilities, our trust in them; their forms of ethical governance, if they have any, and the extent to which they are accountable,” she said on RTÉ radio. “I would like to see an international regulatory response to dual-use technology so a code of conduct could be imposed on scientists on the application of technologies.”

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