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Scientists Say First Artificial Living Cell Developed

Handout photo from the J. Craig Venter Institute of scanning electron micrographs of M. mycoides, post-fixed in osmium tetroxide, dehydrated and critical point dried with CO2.
A team of scientists in the United States says it has created the world's first "artificial" single-cell organism that will do what humans command.

The team assembled a chain of DNA from laboratory chemicals and then inserted that chain into a bacterium whose own DNA had been removed.

The result: the single-celled organism began to create proteins commanded by the laboratory-made DNA.

The full details of the research are to be published today in the U.S. journal "Science." But already, the news is creating huge interest within the global scientific community.

"This is actually the first time ever we've had a synthetic cell from a synthetic chromosome," said the team's leader, molecular scientist Craig Venter.

"So, the chromosome was assembled starting with four bottles of chemicals assembled in yeast, transplanted from yeast to a recipient bacterial cell, and then that bacterial cell transformed into a whole new cell based on what was in the synthetic genome. So it's a whole new paradigm for how to do things in science."

Designer Cells

The team's work -- carried out at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland and California -- is a major step toward designing "tailor-made" cells that could create vaccines for medical purposes.

Dr. Craig Venter
Other potential applications include producing algae to clean up carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, or making new clean energy hydrocarbons.

Today, such goals are still far away. To make the first "synthetic" cell, Venter's team did not try to do more with the test bacteria than nature usually does.

The team artificially duplicated one bacterium's natural DNA using laboratory materials. It then introduced that DNA into a bacterium of a closely related species.

Sticking close to nature minimized the chances that the new DNA would be rejected, yet was still enough to demonstrate the laboratory-made DNA's effect in commanding its host cell create different protein byproducts than before.

Biological Software

Previously, research teams have never gone so far. They only have made "synthetic" life by adding one or two new genes to a microbe's DNA.

The new work shows that future researchers may be able not only to artificially replicate the DNA of a simple organism, but even create new versions that don't exist naturally.

That ability comes as molecular biologists have made huge progress over recent decades in decoding the makeup of DNA and manipulating its structure with the help of computer models.

For this reason, Venter himself compares his team's current achievement with writing new "computer software" to create "new biological systems."

"I think this is a critical first step for the field of synthetic biology, to really start with information in the computer, write new software, [and] get that software booted up to create new biological systems that can change how we proceed," Venter says.

To truly create new life forms, scientists will still have to overcome the formidable challenge of getting all the genes in a human-created DNA to work smoothly together. The farther the scientists depart from the DNA of organisms that have evolved naturally over millennia, the greater will be the uncertainty the "new biological systems" will work.

Safety Concerns

Still, today's success is enough to show that molecular biologists are well along the road to one day producing simple new life forms. And that is enough to both excite and worry many people.

Critics of the fast-developing field say it raises ethical questions of whether scientists should be free to tinker with nature when the results could be unpredictable.

And, critics say, clear safeguards will have to be in place to assure such technology is not deployed to the detriment of the natural ecosystem.

They equally caution that any kind of bio-engineering raises the danger of bio-terrorism should the technology fall into the wrong hands.

Because of such concerns, the growing field of synthetic biology has from the outset been accompanied by controversy and heated debate.

Today's step forward will almost certainly add fuel to that debate. But it also should make it clear that now it is no longer a question of "if" -- but of "when" -- humans must decide how to handle their new creative power.

compiled from agency reports

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