Playing GOD?


> Scientists create a living organism
> (FT) -- Scientists have turned inanimate chemicals into a living organism in 
> an experiment that raises profound questions about the essence of life.
> Craig Venter, the U.S. genomics pioneer, announced on Thursday that 
> scientists at his laboratories in Maryland and California had succeeded in 
> their 15-year project to make the world's first "synthetic cells" -- bacteria 
> called Mycoplasma mycoides. "We have passed through a critical psychological 
> barrier," Dr. Venter told the FT. "It has changed my own thinking, both 
> scientifically and philosophically, about life, and how it works."
> The bacteria's genes were all constructed in the laboratory "from four 
> bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information on 
> a computer," he said. The research -- published online by the journal Science 
> -- was hailed as a landmark by many independent scientists and philosophers. 
> "Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, 
> potentially peeking into its destiny," said Julian Savulescu, ethics 
> professor at Oxford University. "This is a step towards ... creation of 
> living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally 
> evolved. The synthetic bacteria have 14 "watermark sequences" attached to 
> their genome -- inert stretches of DNA added to distinguish them from their 
> natural counterparts. They behaved and divided in lab dishes like natural 
> bacteria.
> M mycoides was chosen as a simple microbe with which to develop and prove the 
> technology. It has no immediate application. But scientists at the J. Craig 
> Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics, the company funding their research, 
> intend to move quickly on to more useful targets that may not exist in 
> nature. They are particularly interested in designing algae that can capture 
> carbon dioxide from the air and produce hydrocarbon fuels. Last year 
> Synthetic Genomics signed a $600M agreement with Exxon Mobil to make algal 
> biofuels. "We have looked hard at natural algae, and we can't find one that 
> can make the fuels we want on the scales we need," Dr. Venter said.
> The researchers built up the synthetic genome of M mycoides, with its million 
> chemical letters, by stitching together shorter stretches of DNA, each about 
> 1,000 letters long. They then transferred the completed genome into the shell 
> of another bacterium M capricolum whose own DNA had been removed. The 
> transplanted genome "booted up" the host cell and took over its biological 
> machinery. After 30 cell divisions, there were billions of synthetic bacteria 
> in the lab dishes -- all of them making exclusively the biological molecules 
> associated with M mycoides.
> Experts warn of the risks as well as the benefits of synthetic biology. "We 
> need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and 
> protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse," said Prof. 
> Savulescu.
> -- 
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