Scientists have created the world's first synthetic life form in a
landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are
built rather than evolved.
The controversial feat, which
has occupied 20 scientists for more than 10 years at an estimated cost
of $40m, was described by one researcher as "a defining moment in biology".
the pioneering US geneticist behind the experiment, said the
achievement heralds the dawn of a new era in which new life is made to
benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak
up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines.
critics, including some religious groups, condemned the work, with one
organisation warning that artificial organisms could escape into the
wild and cause environmental havoc or be turned into biological
weapons. Others said Venter was playing God.
organism is based on an existing bacterium that causes mastitis in
goats, but at its core is an entirely synthetic genome that was
constructed from chemicals in the laboratory.
single-celled organism has four "watermarks" written into its DNA to
identify it as synthetic and help trace its descendants back to their
creator, should they go astray.
"We were ecstatic when the
cells booted up with all the watermarks in place," Dr Venter told the
Guardian. "It's a living species now, part of our planet's inventory of
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Dr Venter's team developed a new code based on the
four letters of the genetic code, G, T, C and A, that allowed them to
draw on the whole alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks to write the
watermarks. Anyone who cracks the code is invited to email an address
written into the DNA.
The research is reported online today in the journal Science.
is an important step both scientifically and philosophically," Dr
Venter told the journal. "It has certainly changed my views of
definitions of life and how life works."
The team now
plans to use the synthetic organism to work out the minimum number of
genes needed for life to exist. From this, new microorganisms could be
made by bolting on additional genes to produce useful chemicals, break
down pollutants, or produce proteins for use in vaccines.
Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics
at Oxford University, said: "Venter is creaking open the most profound
door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is
not merely copying life artificially ... or modifying it radically by
genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating
artificial life that could never have existed naturally."
This is "a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology", Mark Bedau, a philosopher at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, told Science.
Dr Venter became a controversial figure in the 1990s when he pitted his former company, Celera Genomics, against the publicly funded effort to sequence the human genome, the Human Genome Project.
Venter had already applied for patents on more than 300 genes, raising
concerns that the company might claim intellectual rights to the
building blocks of life.