Lauran Neergaard, AP
Scientists announced a bold step in the enduring quest to create artificial life. They've produced a living cell powered by manmade DNA. While such work can evoke images of Frankenstein-like scientific tinkering, it also is exciting hopes that it could eventually lead to new fuels, better ways to clean polluted water, faster vaccine production and more.
The inventors call it the world's first synthetic cell, although this initial step is more a re-creation of existing life than a built-from-scratch kind. But Maryland genome-mapping pioneer J. Craig Venter said his team's project paves the way for the ultimate, much harder goal: designing organisms that work differently from the way nature intended for a wide range of uses. Already he's working with ExxonMobil in hopes of turning algae into fuel.
“This is the first self-replicating species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer,” Venter told reporters. “It's been a long time coming, and it was worth the wait,” said Dr. George Church, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor. “It's a milestone that has potential practical applications.”
Following the announcement, President Barack Obama directed the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues he established last fall to make its first order of business a study of the milestone. “The commission should consider the potential medical, environmental, security and other benefits of this field of research, as well as any potential health, security or other risks,” Obama wrote in a letter to the commission's chairwoman, Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania.
Obama also asked that the commission develop recommendations about any actions the government should take “to ensure that America reaps the benefits of this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks.”
For years scientists have moved single genes and even large chunks of DNA from one species to another. At his J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, MD, and San Diego, Venter's team aimed to go further. A few years ago, the researchers transplanted an entire natural genome of one bacterium into another and watched it take over, turning a goat germ into a cattle germ.
Next, the researchers built from scratch another, smaller bacterium's genome, using off-the-shelf laboratory-made DNA fragments. This new report combines those two achievements to test a big question: Could synthetic DNA really take over and drive a living cell? Somehow, it did.
Even while praising the accomplishment, many specialists say the work hasn't yet crossed the line of truly creating new life from scratch. It's partially synthetic, some said, because Venter's team had to stick the manmade genetic code inside a living cell from a related species. That cell was more than just a container; it also contained its own cytoplasm — the liquid part. In other words, the synthetic part was running on the hardware of the modern cell.
The environmental group Friends of the Earth said the new work took genetic engineering to an extreme new level and urged that Venter stop until government regulations are put in place to protect against these kind of engineered microbes escaping into the environment. Venter said he removed 14 genes thought to make the germ dangerous to goats before doing the work, and had briefed government officials about the work over the course of several years — acknowledging that someone potentially could use this emerging field for harm instead of good.
But MIT's Weiss said it would be far easier to use existing technologies to make bio-weapons. “There's a big gap between science fiction and what your imagination can do and the reality in research labs.