SCIENTISTS have created artificial life for the first time. They have developed a tiny new bacterium, or “synthetic cell”, that is controlled by man-made DNA.
The technological advance is the culmination of 15 years of research costing more than $47 million by a team led by Craig Venter, a controversial American biologist and entrepreneur.
The breakthrough promises the creation of new, useful synthetic bacteria that can clean up pollution or produce energy, but there are also concerns man-made microbes could escape the lab or be used as weapons by terrorists.
Scientist Craig Venter and his synthetic cell creation.
Mark Bedau, editor of the scientific journal Artificial Life, said the research represented “a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology”.
Dr Venter said his team’s research was scientifically and philosophically important. “It certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works.”
His team created the genome of a bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides, from scratch, using bits of DNA bought from biotech companies. They then transferred it into another type of bacterium and the synthetic genome “booted up” the recipient cells, so they began to replicate and produce M. mycoides proteins.
“We clearly transformed one cell into another,” said Dr Venter, who heads the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland. “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].”
The research is published in the journal Science.
One of the team’s main aims is to design algae that can capture carbon dioxide and produce oil for fuel. The approach could also have benefits in speeding up vaccine production, cleaning water and producing chemicals and food ingredients, he said.
But Georgia Miller, of Friends of the Earth, said there was a risk that synthetic organisms could harm the environment or be used for malicious purposes.
Regulations to control them were lacking, she said. “Although we’ve known this day would come for many years, governments have done very little.”
She was also critical that the researchers have filed patent applications on some of their techniques, with the risk that “new organisms could be owned by their developers”.
Michael Selgelid, deputy director of the National Centre for Biosecurity at the Australian National University, said the research was a “historical achievement” with “enormous potential”, although its promise had yet to be realised.
He said many new technologies, including synthetic biology, could be used for good or evil, and the development of dangerous synthetic microbes as weapons was a major concern.
Better regulations and safeguards had been under discussion for a decade, including reviewing the risk of “dual purpose” use of research when a project was first proposed and strengthening international conventions on bioterrorism.
Dr Venter said he had ensured an extensive bioethical review of the implications of the research had been done first.
The making of mankind’s first synthetic cell is a form of genetic engineering that could open a scientific Pandora’s box, some ethicists and scientists warned today.
Researcher and entrepreneur Craig Venter unveiled the self-replicating bacteria cell overnight in the US after 15 years of research, hailing it a “powerful tool” for designing biology.
Using the same method, scientists could design bacteria to help produce biofuels or to clean up environmental hazards.
But critics say Venter is playing God and exposing humanity and the environment to bacteria that could mutate, with unforseen consequences, or even be used as biological weapons.
“It’s quite a radically different approach,” biochemistry professor Ann Simpson of the University of Technology, Sydney said.
“You’ve got to be very careful when you willy-nilly send something into the environment and you can’t control its spread.
“And you can’t control a bacteria spread once you release it.”
Professor Simpson said this form of artificial life was unlike other form of biomedical advances, where changes are contained within an individual, drug or crop that could be carefully checked before they are released into the environment.
“Bacteria have been known to mutate and change, and [this could] change into something that they didn’t predict, and it could be a problem.”
Venter, who is also the co-author of the first sequencing of the human genome in 2000, has defended his team’s work, telling the BBC that “it’s been a goal of humanity from the earlier stages to try and control nature”.
“That’s how we got domesticated animals.
“This is the next stage in our understanding, it is a baby step in our understanding of how life fundamentally works and maybe how we can get some new handles on trying to control these microbial systems to benefit humanity.”
Professor Don Chalmers of the University of Tasmania, who specialises in ethics and biotechnology law, said regulation was the key to the safe development and use of the science.
“I think it’s absolutely critical – as Professor Margaret Somerville, a very distinguished Australian professor of law at McGill University expressed some years ago – that we have to ensure that science time, which moves very quickly, is followed very closely [by laws].
“The ethical debates [should] be contemporaneous with the science and that the regulation is in place to enable the good science to go forward but to control some of those perils.”
Professor Chalmers said it was essential the public should be consulted and involved in debates on how science could be developed responsibly.
Australia, he said, was already “in the forefront” of ethics debates on genetic manipulation, while current laws and regulations have helped to draw the line on what science is acceptable here, and what is not.
“The Gene Technology Act sets down very careful rules about licensing, about laboratory standards, about the proper scientific review of the work from a biosafety point of view,” he said.
“Most importantly, the National Health and Medical Research Council, with the Australian Health Ethics Committee and the Gene Technology Ethics Committee … are bodies that give the opportunity for the ethical issues to be examined.
“We want to see responsible science carried out ethically and responsibly, but there are times when we will in fact become quite strict.”
The synthetic genome created by the J. Craig Venter Institute is “watermarked” to distinguish it from a natural one.
The watermarks included the names of 46 authors and scientists who worked on the project on the genome along with its own website address – so that anyone who decodes it can send an email to the team.
Three sets of quotations including “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” from Irish author James Joyce were also included.
Venter told a press conference the team had started with a living cell, which had been transformed with the synthetic genome, adding that the cell had 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.
He also dismissed fears that such synthetic technology could be use for bio-terrorism.
“The technology is not for sale, the cells are not for sale,” he told the BBC.
“We are trying to use this technology to advance vaccine protection, we are trying to use it to advance the basic understanding of cellular life.”