A historical breakthrough- Scientists Create First 'Synthetic' Cells
@ May 21, 2010
    view in one page and print


Researchers Imbue Cell With Engineered DNA



MedPage Today Staff Writer

May 21, 2010

In a development that seems likely to stir a firestorm of controversy, researchers said Thursday that they have used genes made in the lab to create a synthetic species of bacteria.

An organism controlled by completely manmade DNA can grow and reproduce.

"We're here to announce the first synthetic cell," said J. Craig Venter, head of the self-named J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., and leader of one of the teams that decoded the human genome.

He told reporters that the new species -- dubbed Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 -- is similar to one found in nature, except that the chromosome that controls each cell was created from scratch. The research is reported in the May 20 issue of the journal Science.

The new species, Venter said, started with researchers digitizing the genetic code for the new species on computers, then assembling the nucleotides using "four bottles of chemicals" into sections of DNA. The DNA sections were assembled in yeast cells to form a synthetic chromosome, which was then transferred to a related species of bacteria, M. capricolum.

Late in March, the researchers told reporters, the modified cells began replicating and formed a "blue colony" of the new species.

"This is the first self-replicating species that we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer," Venter said.

Indeed, he and his colleagues consistently used computer language to describe the work. The new chromosome is like an operating system, they said, and it reprograms the M. capricolum cells to become M. mycoides.

The result comes after 15 years of research -- and some $40 million -- aimed at finding what Venter has called the minimal genome: the smallest set of genes that can support a living creature. But it could quickly have spinoffs, the researchers said.

Among the possibilities are new tools for vaccine and pharmaceutical development, as well as new biofuels and biochemicals, they said. Venter suggested during the press conference that synthetic algae might be designed to cope with oil spills such as the one currently threatening the Gulf Coast of the United States.

Along with genes needed for life, the researchers added "watermark" DNA sequences to distinguish the synthetic genome from a natural one.

723e-abc cell.png

In a development that seems likely to stir a firestorm of controversy, researchers said Thursday that they have used genes made in the lab to create a synthetic species of bacteria.

(ABC News)

The watermarks include the names of 46 scientists who worked on the project, a website address for the new species, and quotations from author James Joyce and physicist Richard Feynman.

Describing the new species as "synthetic" may be going too far, according to some experts.

It's "synthetic in the sense that its DNA is synthesized, not in that a new life form has been created," according to Jim Collins, professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University and an expert in synthetic biology. "Its genome is a stitched-together copy of the DNA of an organism that exists in nature, with a few small tweaks thrown in."

Collins made that observation in a short commentary on the research, one of eight published in the rival journal Nature and released today.

But bioethicist Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the commentary that the result is "one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind."

He argued that creating the synthetic genome finally rings the death knell for the notion of vitalism, the idea that there is a life force that distinguishes living matter from the inorganic.

Robert Field, professor of Law and Health Management and Policy at Drexel University, said the "ability to create new life forms may be emerging from the world of science fiction."

But such advances come with uncertainty, Field said. "Will everything we create be benign, or is Frankenstein now in the realm of possibility?"

Mark Bedau, professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Ore., also writing in the Nature commentary, called the new species "a normal bacterium with a prosthetic genome."

The importance of the finding, he argued, is that such a prosthetic genome is not limited -- as the watermarks inserted by Venter and colleagues demonstrate -- to what's found in nature.

Because of that, scientists now have "an unprecedented opportunity to learn about life" that brings with it the need for new ways of thinking about precautions and risk analysis.

Indeed, Venter noted that he and colleagues were stalled for several months because one of the pieces of DNA they painstakingly crafted had a type -- a single base-pair deletion -- that means the whole chromosome could not function.

"So accuracy is essential," he said. "There's parts of the genome where it can't tolerate even a single error and there's parts where we can put in large blocks of DNA and it can tolerate all kinds of errors."

Despite that sensitivity in the lab, Venter told a reporter "it's not clear there are any" downsides to the research. Although all technologies are "dual-use," he said he thinks the work is a "linear advance" in the ability to harm and an "exponential advance" in potentially beneficial science.


About J. Craig Venter


Page last updated at 13:58 GMT, Friday, 21 May 2010 14:58 UK

'Artificial life' breakthrough announced by scientists

723e-J Venter.png

Craig Venter is one of science's more colourful characters

"Maverick" is a word that seems to follow Craig Venter around.

The biologist and entrepreneur turned the effort to map the human genome into a competitive race and, in so doing, was vilified by the scientific community.

Dr Venter has certainly not gained a reputation for modesty about his achievements. "Is my science of a level consistent with other people who have gotten the Nobel? Yes," he was once quoted as saying.

And he is a very wealthy user of Lear Jets and private yachts.

But his efforts in the field of human genomics have undeniably helped speed up the entire process.

After the publication of the human genome, Dr Venter turned his attention to another grand project: the creation of a synthetic life form.

Scientists at the US-based J Craig Venter Institute have been busily working on the endeavour for more than a decade. They have now published details of the result, an organism called Synthia, in the prestigious journal Science.

Born in 1946, as a boy, Dr Venter did not exemplify good scholarship and at 18 he chose to devote his life to the surfing pleasures of the beaches in Southern California. Three years later, in 1967, he was drafted into the Vietnam conflict.

As an orderly in the naval field hospital at Da Nang, he tended to thousands of soldiers wounded during the Tet offensive.

This inspired two important changes in him: a determination to become a doctor and a conviction that time should never be wasted.

"Life was so cheap in Vietnam. That is where my sense of urgency comes from," he said.

Need for speed

During his medical training he excelled in research rather than practice. By the 1980s, the early days of the revolution in molecular biology, he was working at the government-funded US National Institute of Health and soon realised the importance of decoding genes.


Dr Venter says the synthetic cell could spark an industrial revolution

But the work was messy, tedious and agonisingly slow. So, in 1987, when he read reports of an automated decoding machine, he soon had the first one in his lab. This speeded things up - but not enough.

Then came Dr Venter's real breakthrough. He realised that he did not need to trawl the entire genome to find the active parts, because cells already use those parts naturally.

He switched his attention from the DNA blueprint to the messenger molecules (called RNA) that a cell makes from that blueprint. He was then able to churn out gene sequences at unprecedented rates.

His success shocked some, most notably the co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson, who famously dismissed the relatively crude results obtained as work "any monkey" could do.

The criticism, and the failure to secure further public research funding, prompted Dr Venter to leave the NIH in 1992 and set up a private research institute, The Institute for Genomic Research.

And, in 1995, he again stunned the scientific establishment by unveiling the first, complete genome of a free-living organism, Haemophilus influenzae, a major cause of childhood ear infections and meningitis.

His greatest challenge to the establishment came in May 1998, when he announced the formation of a commercial company, Celera Genomics, to crack the entire human genetic code in just three years. At that point, the public project was three years into a 10-year programme.

Industrial revolution?

Both efforts published their results in 2001. What some saw as Dr Venter's disregard for scientific conventions such as open access to data brought him opprobrium in some circles.

Nevertheless, the financial rewards were enough to leave him in a highly unusual position for a scientist - with enough money and resources to do the science he wanted without having to tap the usual bureaucratic sources for funding and infrastructure.

In 2006, he formed the J Craig Venter Institute which would spearhead the labour to create the world's first synthetic life form. Dr Venter kept the scientific journals and the media abreast of developments, trumpeting several key advances as he edged closer to his goal.

Dr Craig Venter says yeast, chemicals, and computers were used by scientists

But he has pursued other projects in the meantime. Dr Venter has roamed the oceans in his yacht, Sorcerer II, collecting life forms in an unprecedented genetic treasure hunt.

The project aims to sequence genomes from the vast range of microbes living in the sea, to provide scientists with a better understanding of the evolution and function of genes and proteins.

The synthetic life breakthrough, when it was announced, was not without controversy. But Dr Venter will have come to expect that.

"I think they're going to potentially create a new industrial revolution," he said of the synthetic microbes.

"If we can really get cells to do the production that we want, they could help wean us off oil and reverse some of the damage to the environment by capturing carbon dioxide."


Photo gallery of Synthetic Cells


Home / ZDNet Photo Galleries

Scientists build first synthetic bacteria (photos)

723e-ZDnet bacteria.png

Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute claimed the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell.

The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and proves that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

It is hoped that this discovery will lead to the development of many important applications and products including biofuels, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, clean water and food products. Cleaning up oil spills maybe?

Above: Negatively stained transmission electron micrographs of aggregated M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0.

Credit: Electron micrographs were provided by Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California at San Diego.


[right click on this link and "save as" to download article]

Leave a comment

(if you having troubles, try posting your comment on this page or send an email to chronicle @ itbhuglobal.org)

Copyright © 2008-2013 by ITBHU Global Alumni Association
Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University
Varanasi 221005, UP