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Scientists Use 'Synthetic Biology' To Create New Bacteria

Researchers say they have transferred the entire genetic material of one microbe into another one, producing a genetic carbon copy. VOA's Jessica Berman reports from Washington that researchers hope the work might eventually lead to the development of synthetic fuels.

Since the 1970's, molecular biologists have modified cells by inserting bits and pieces of DNA or entire genes.

Now, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute, near Washington D.C., have taken all of the genes from one species of bacteria and transferred them into another. The transfer biologically changed the cell from one species to the other by moving the DNA.

Institute founder and biologist Craig Venter explains.

"This is equivalent to changing a MacIntosh computer to a PC by inserting a new piece of software," said Craig Venter.

The work, published in the new issue of Science magazine, is part of a larger project by Venter's group and other researchers to create a genome from scratch. While the function of many genes, the genome is also filled with hundreds of millions of genes whose individual function is still a mystery. It hopes that the genome can help identify the function of those genes.

In their study, Venter researchers transferred the entire genome in one microbe into another, related one. To their surprise, the second microbe was genetically identical to its parent.

Venter stresses the team did not create any new genes. Rather, he says, the scientists merely demonstrated that it is possible to transfer genetic material and create a genetic copy.

He says researchers expect that custom-engineered cells could be useful in producing biofuels that could help ease the world's reliance on oil.

"We think what has taken us several years to get to this point will take only months to go to the next stages," he said. "So, we look forward to trying to have the first fuels from genetically modified and even synthetic organisms certainly within the decade and possibly within that time."

Some scientists are cautious about drawing far flung conclusions from Venter's research, but even the skeptics agree that a synthetic biology breakthrough is certain to cast a public spotlight on an emerging area of science.