Thursday, January 24, 2008

Scientist unveils man-made genome, key to creating life from scratch

More Health and Science news
Gene pioneer Craig Venter has unveiled the world's first man-made genome, setting the stage for a profound milestone: the creation of life from scratch.
The feat, described online Thursday in the journal Science, was accomplished by making DNA fragments from lab chemicals and then assembling them inside a cell.
The synthetic genome contains all the instructions that an organism - in this case, a tiny bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium - needs to live and reproduce.
The ability to synthesize life, such as biofuels, could help solve one of mankind's biggest problems: a sustainable energy supply. But it could also be used to construct bioweapons, such as smallpox.
"The science can be used to do practical things - and it also can be used to do dangerous and nefarious things," said anthropologist Paul Rabinow of the University of California-Berkeley.
It is impossible to completely regulate such inventions, he said, urging the public to start discussing the science's ethical ramifications.
"What it might mean for the future is incredible," said David C. Magnus, director of Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics, who in the late 1990s helped draft the first guidelines to govern such research. "The whole field has moved so far, so quickly.
"It shouldn't be discarded because of the pitfalls. We just need to make sure we stay on top of the pitfalls," Magnus said. "As a society, we're taking a gamble that we can put enough protections in

place so that my the time it is widespread, the damage can be mitigated."
Scientists are now working on the next step at the Maryland and La Jolla labs of the J. Craig Venter Institute. They will strive to "boot up" the inserted genome and watch it give the cell marching orders.
Just as technicians can now assemble standardized, off-the-shelf electronic components to build computers, synthetic biologists foresee a day when engineers will assemble biological parts to create desired organisms.
In this experience, the team started with four jars of the basic chemical ingredients of DNA. The chemicals were strung together in the correct sequence, then assembled into small pieces called cassettes. Inside a yeast cell, the cassettes were linked to create a single large and looping chromosome.
This is the latest exploit for Venter, whose company Synthetic Genomics Inc. has already filed patents on synthetic bugs. He was the first person to sequence the genome of a living organism and the first to publish the genome of a specific human being - himself. He has applied for a patent on the synthetic bacterium.
"We're not shaking together chemicals and striking them with a lightening bolt," Venter said at a Thursday teleconference from Davos, Switzerland. "It is a new design phase of biology - constructing chromosomes of a specific nature for specific purposes."
California has also jumped into the field of so-called "synthetic biology" at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, or SynBERC, a multi-institution research effort that includes University of California campuses at Santa Cruz, Berkeley and San Francisco, as well as private biotech companies and venture capital firms.
UC-Berkeley researcher Chris Anderson is building tumor-killing bacteria. In Emeryville, Amyris Biotechnologies adds genes to yeast or bacteria to make an anti-malaria drug and novel biofuels. The company LS9 of San Carlos is engineering bacteria that can make hydrocarbons for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Dozens of so-called "gene foundries" have sprung up to sell synthetic strands of DNA and other products.
"It is the first step in a platform for an organic robot," said UC-Berkeley's Rabinow, a member of SynBERC.

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