US scientist creates 'artificial life'

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Venter in 2007.

American biologist Craig Venter has announced that he has created the first ever "artificial life form" on Earth at the J. Craig Venter Institute, a U.S. laboratory and research center.

The breakthrough is the culmination of fifteen years of research and builds upon earlier work, research which saw the creation of a synthetic bacterial genome and the transplant of a genome from one species of bacteria into a second. "Synthia", a nickname derived from synthetic lifeform, combines these two techniques to create a "new lifeform".

A genome was created using synthetic chromosomes made from bottles of chemicals, the chromosomes sequenced to create a genome using as a template an existing bacterium. A bacterium from different species then had its own genome removed and the synthetic one transplanted in its place. Venter's achievement is that the new genome switched on and the new cell was able to replicate. A process likened to the booting of a computer with a new operating system.

Venter's achievement has been dismissed by some as falling short of a true technological breakthrough, claiming that rather than creating a new genome, that he has merely recreated the genome of an existing bacterium: "a technical tour de force" but not breakthrough science, according to Caltech geneticist David Baltimore.

Amongst the possibilities of artificial bacteria talked about are bacteria tailored to solve climate change by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and to develop new vaccines. More complex organisms could include algae which would both be a source of biofuels and a CO2 remover. This is not, however, the instant solution to the Earth's major problems. Although enough is now known to duplicate a genome, there is insufficient knowledge as to what the role of individual chromosomes within the genome do. Any advances in synthetic biology to design life forms would require a much greater understanding of how the creation of proteins are coded in a genome's chromosomes.


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