US scientist says he created first 'artificial life form'

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Saturday, October 6, 2007

Venter in 2004.
Image: Michael Janich.

According to reports, American biologist Craig Venter is going to announce 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, using synthetic chromosomes made from chemicals.

The Guardian Unlimited reports that Venter may announce the discovery on Monday, but could publish the report within a few weeks.

"[This is] a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before," said Venter.

The discovery was made by 20 scientists on a team that was led by microbiologist Hamilton O. Smith which created the synthetic chromosome. The chromosome is filled with 580,000 'base pairs' of a genetic code, and is 381 genes in length. Using Mycoplasma genitalium bacteria, the scientists broke down the genetic coding of the bacterium and removed a fifth of it, making sure that only the essential genetic products exist to support life. They then inject the bacterium into a living bacterial cell, where the new life form takes over, creating an entirely new species of life.

At least one test has been reported to be successful when scientists used a genome of a natural bacterium and implanted it into another cell. That bacterium took over that cell, creating a new form of life, and Venter says that he is "100% confident" that the scientists will be able to get the same results when using the synthetic chromosome.

Despite the reports, a spokeswoman for the offices where Venter works states that the Guardian Unlimited "jumped the gun" in reporting the event.

"The Guardian is ahead of themselves on this. We have not achieved what some have speculated we have in synthetic life. When we do so there will be a scientific publication and we are likely months away from that," said Heather Kowalski, the office's spokeswoman.