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New life form to be created

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.325.7375.1260/c (Published 30 November 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1260
  1. Deborah Josefson
  1. Nebraska

    Genetics researcher Dr Craig Venter, who gained international attention when his company, Celera Genomics, beat the non-profit Human Genome Project in the race to sequence the human genome, recently revealed that he intends to create a new living organism.

    Dr Venter and Nobel laureate Professor Hamilton Smith have received the go ahead from an ethics committee and a $3m (£1.9m; €3m) grant from the US Department of Energy to pursue the project.

    The ethics committee, which is known as the Ethics of Genomics Group, is funded by an “unrestricted grant” from The Institute of Genomics Research (TIGR), based in Rockville, Maryland, a research institute, which Venter founded. It is composed of bioethicists from such places as the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Baylor University, and Stanford University.

    The scientists plan to modify a simple bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium, by stripping it of its DNA and replacing it with artificially created chromosomes. By eliminating the bacterium's genes bit by bit and analysing those genes, the scientists hope to discover which genes are essential for life and which are disposable or optional.

    The plan, which was reported in the Washington Post (22 November, p C11), is expected to provide insights into basic biology but has prompted concerns about ethics and fears that the findings may be misused by bioterrorists. As a result, much of the effort will be classified, and discussions are continuing about how much should be published to promote scientific openness and discovery and what should remain secret.

    The federal funds will go to the Institute of Biological Energy Alternatives, a laboratory that Dr Venter established with Professor Smith to research the potential of microbes to provide alternative energy sources.

    Dr Venter and Professor Smith did preliminary research on this project several years ago when they found that the minimum number of genes required to sustain life in the bacterium M genitalium was about 300 (Science1999;286:2165-9). This feat was accomplished using global transpositional mutagenesis in which transposons were used to disrupt the genetic code of the bacterium.

    They chose M genitalium because it is unicellular, one of the simplest known microbes, and contains only one chromosome with just 517 genes. Dr Venter's group plans to modify M genitalium to such an extent that it would be in essence a new life form, receiving its instructions from manufactured genes on a synthetic chromosome. Ultimately, the scientists seek to understand the minimal molecular recipe for life and be able to model on computer every aspect of the biology of an organism.

    In the new project, Dr Venter, Professor Smith, and colleagues will disable the natural genome of M genitalium and replace it with artificial chromosomes containing genes synthesised from base pairs in the laboratory. Artificial chromosomes were first created in 1983 in yeast. This achievement was later duplicated with human chromosomes in 1997 (see Nature Genetics1997;15:345-55 and BMJ 1997;314:1065).

    Dr Venter hopes that the modified microbe can help solve the problem of global warming and provide an alternative to fossil fuels. He told the Washington Post: “We could potentially engineer an organism with the ideal qualities to begin to cope with our energy issues, perhaps one that could create hydrogen or absorb carbon dioxide.”

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