US researchers have developed the first bacteria cell controlled by a synthetic genome, in a breakthrough which may pose philosophical and scientific questions about the bid to recreate life.
“This is the first synthetic cell that’s been made,” said lead researcher Craig Venter, as the discovery was unveiled.
“We call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer.”
The team said it now hopes to use the method it has developed “to probe the basic machinery of life and to engineer bacteria specially designed to solve environmental or energy problems.”
The method could be used to design bacteria specifically to help produce biofuels or to clean up environmental hazards, said the study carried out by the J. Craig Venter Institute, and published in the journal Science.
“This becomes a very powerful tool for trying to design what we want biology to do. We have a wide range of applications (in mind),” said Venter, co-author of the first sequencing of the human genome in 2000.
The researchers synthesized the 1.08 million base pair genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides, created from four bottles of chemicals which make up the components of DNA.
They also added DNA sequences to “watermark” the genome to distinguish it from a natural one, in a bid to overcome any controversy about the possibility of creating life from scratch in a test-tube through a chemical process.
They had also imprinted the names of 46 scientists, who worked on the project, on the genome along with its own website address — so that anyone who decodes the genome can send an email to the team.
“We do start with a living cell which we transform,” Venter told a later press conference, adding the cell had now gone through a “million steps of replication” and was now frozen in a freezer.
“This is an important step we think, both scientifically and philosophically. It’s certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works,” he added in a statement.
Throughout the research, the team had engaged in discussions about the ethical implications of their work, he said.
Venter’s team announced in 2008 that it had chemically synthesized a bacterial genome, but it was unable to activate that genome in the cell at that time.
Now the team had managed to “boot up” the synthetic genome to create the first cell controlled by a synthentic genome.
Potential applications include producing algae to clean up carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, or making new clean energy hydrocarbons for refineries.
Researchers also hope to work on techniques to speed up the production of vaccines and to make new food ingredients and chemical substances.
“The ability to routinely write the software of life will usher in a new era in science, and with it, new products and applications such as advanced biofuels, clean water technology, and new vaccines and medicines,” the institute said on its website.
“Continued and intensive review and dialogue with all areas of society, from Congress to bioethicists to laypeople, is necessary for this field to prosper.”