Azara Blog: Craig Venter wants to construct a bacterium

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Date published: 2005/07/04

The BBC says:

Craig Venter - one of the scientists behind the sequencing of the human genetic code - aims to construct a living organism from a kit of genes.

It would be a biological milestone were he to succeed and would open a debate about the nature of "life".

Dr Venter's company will work out the minimum number of genes a bacterium needs, synthesise the genetic material and then put it in an empty cell.

Ultimately, designer bacteria could be used for industrial tasks, he claims.

Dr Venter has been this way before when initiated a project in the late 1990s to determine the minimum number of genes required to sustain a lifeform.

At the time, the work prompted ethical discussions over the limits to which humans should try to manipulate a living organism.

"Our sequencing of the first genomes, including the human genome, set the stage for this next great phase in understanding biology, which will ultimately enable us to pursue applications that will improve the environment and transform several industries," says Hamilton Smith, a Nobel laureate and co-founder of Synthetic Genomics.

Synthetic Genomics intends to construct an organism with a "minimal genome" that can then be inserted into the shell of a bacterium.

Initially, Dr Venter plans to replace the genes in the 517-gene Mycoplasma genitalium, and then alter the bug so that it is tailor-made for certain industrial uses, such as cleaning up pollution or even removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.

Two years ago, Dr Venter impressed the scientific world, and alarmed the public, when his team synthesised a genome to create the bacteriophage phiX174.

Although other researchers had constructed a virus from the genome up before Dr Venter, the Maryland scientist has long held the aim to construct the first man-made bacterium; this is a far more complex task.

Currently, Synthetic Genomics is removing the genes, one by one, from M. genitalium to identify the right gene set for the organism to survive in a controlled environment.

It is work that builds on research Dr Venter and colleagues at The Institute for Genomic Research (Tigr) published in 2002.

Once that has been done Synthetic Genomics will attempt to synthesise the genome and then "add the desired biological capabilities", before inserting the genetic construct into an environment "that allows metabolic activity and replication", the company says. In other words, the company would try to create the first semi-artificial cell.

Amazing stuff, and it's obvious the religious nutters of the world are not going to like this at all, especially when scientists move onto even more complex organisms.

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