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Scientists Control Cell With Synthetic Genome

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Jessica Berman

In a groundbreaking achievement, scientists have created an artificial genome capable of controlling and replicating a living cell.  Researchers say the breakthrough paves the way for specially engineered bacteria to that can help solve a wide range of environmental, energy and human health problems.  

Using laboratory chemicals, scientists have produced what they are calling the world's first "synthetic cell."

The groundbreaking work was led by geneticist J. Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland. "We are here today to announce the first synthetic cell -- a cell made by starting with the digital code in the computer, building the chromosome from four bottles of chemicals, assembling that chromosome in yeast, transplanting it into a recipient bacterial cell and transforming that cell into a new bacterial species," he said.

Venter says researchers investigating the genetic foundations of life came up with the idea of manufacturing a bacterial chromosome 15 years ago.  

Scientists pieced together the genetic material of the bacterium M. mycoides by inserting short strands into yeast that used its repair enzymes to stitch the DNA into one long string of genetic material.

It took three such insertions to assemble the M. mycoides genome, which scientists then transferred into a second bacterium called Mycoplasm capricolum.  Researchers say the transplanted DNA began functioning as a normal genome within M. capricolum, directing the production of M. mycoides proteins and conferring new, M. mycoides properties to the host bacterium.

In order to distinguish their synthetic genome from a natural one, Venter says researchers inserted "watermarks" into the new genetic code.  These included three famous quotations, letters spelling out the names of each of the project's 46 different contributors. "And we also built in a website address so that if somebody decodes the code within the code within the code, they can send an email to that address.  So it's clearly distinguishable from any other species," he said.

Now that they have shown it is possible to control a cell with a synthetic genome, researchers say they will try to use the technology to solve complex environmental and energy problems.  For example, Venter says his institute has partnered with the petroleum company ExxonMobil to develop new strains of algae that can capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or from concentrated sources, like the ocean, to make hydrocarbons that can go into their refineries to make carbon-neutral gasoline and diesel fuel.

In the medical field, Venter says, the technology might allow scientists to make vaccines in a matter of days instead of months. "We think these tools can affect vaccines to diseases that haven't been possible to date - things where the viruses rapidly evolve, such with rhinovirus.  Wouldn't it be nice to have something that actually blocked common colds?  Or more importantly, HIV where the virus evolves so quickly - the vaccines that are made today can't keep up with those evolutionary changes," he said.

In a series of commentaries in the journal Nature, scientists from a variety of disciplines and institutions hailed the creation of a synthetic genome as an important, historic advance in biology.  But many noted that the accomplishment does not represent the creation of new life because the synthetically modified cell is made up primarily of natural genetic structures.

The paper by Craig Venter and his colleagues on their creation of the first synthetic genome is published this week in the journal Science.

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