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J. Craig Venter Institute

New life form?

Science | Scientists claim to have created first synthetic cell

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

Forty million dollars and 15 years' worth of experiments have culminated in a goat germ some herald as the first synthetic life form. Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland and California last month announced success with Mycoplasma mycoides: "This is the first self-replicating species that we have had on the planet whose parent is a computer," institute founder Craig Venter told the Reuters news service.

That claim is true in some sense. The researchers started with a digital DNA catalogue of a normal M. mycoides bacterium, a pathogen known to infect goats. They altered the DNA sequence to include several encoded "watermarks" (genetic sequences that act like fingerprints) and finally sent the complete, customized genome off to a DNA synthesis company, which artificially produced short segments of the code. The Venter Institute team then assembled those segments into a single strand nearly identical to that of a wild M. mycoides and transplanted the resulting genome into a Mycoplasma capricolum cell, a similar bacterium species. Result: The cell began behaving exactly as if it were M. mycoides, producing proteins characteristic of that species and multiplying into a colony.

Some genomics experts quibble with Venter's claim over the "first synthetic cell," saying a cell will only really be synthetic when the entire genome is engineered from scratch, rather than copied and modified from a natural version.

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Small-scale genetic engineering has been widely practiced for years, but Venter is aiming to create a "minimal" cell with a short DNA code containing only the most basic information needed for survival. The end goal is to understand the genome well enough to create a cell that could be genetically customized to perform unique functions-such as the biological production of medicine or fuels like propane. (Another company Venter founded, Synthetic Genomics Inc., funded the research and has a $600 million contract with Exxon Mobil to create carbon-absorbing and fuel-producing algae.)

President Obama has directed his bioethics advisory council to review the scientific breakthrough, which, if mishandled, could threaten environmental health and national security. The watermarks added to the synthetic genome are necessary to distinguish the species as unnatural: In this case the scientists had their fun by encoding their names along with a James Joyce quote into the DNA sequence.

Royal skepticism

The Royal Society, Britain's leading science organization, has been a stronghold for scientists banging the global warming bell, but soon it could soften its rhetoric. An informal group of 43 of the society's fellows (there are about 1,400 members) asked the organization's leaders to rewrite their website's page on climate change, which they said over­simplified the issue by presenting some poorly understood aspects of climate science as if they were settled.

Surprisingly, the society agreed to review the issue, and it set up a panel to produce a consensus document that members could largely agree on. But some doubt the panel will reach agreement by its July deadline: "My fear is that the society may become paralyzed on this issue," an unidentified panel member told the BBC.

The society's internal spat parallels growing climate change skepticism in the U.K., where London's Science Museum recently changed the name of an upcoming exhibit from "Climate Change Gallery" to "Climate Science Gallery."

One poll found that 40 percent of Britons either believe climate change isn't occurring or that the science isn't settled, up from 30 percent last year.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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