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A new step toward synthetic life

A genome firm says it changed one bacterium species into another by transferring DNA 'software.'

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 2007

Breakthrough: J. Craig Venter's firm transplanted an entire bacterium genome onto another bacterium species.

AP/FILE

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Scientists have long considered DNA the instruction manual for biological life. Each species has its own unique set of instructions, or genes. And for just as long, scientists have wondered if by swapping these instruction manuals, they could transform one organism into another.

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Now, in a key experiment for the nascent field of designing life from scratch, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., have done just that. They have successfully transplanted the entire genome of one bacterium species into another, changing the recipient into an organism that looks, feels, and for all intents and purposes is, the donor.

"This is equivalent to changing a Macintosh computer to a PC by inserting a new piece of software," says J. Craig Venter in a teleconference. "Synthetic biology still remains to be proven, but now we are much closer to knowing it's absolutely theoretically possible."

The young field of synthetic biology rests on the premise that scientists can design life from the ground up, that they can choose the traits that determine what the organism eats, where it thrives, and how fast it reproduces.

Organisms engineered entirely by human hand could have wide-ranging applications. They might be engineered to create cheap biofuels from a great variety of crops and biomass, including woody material that today is too expensive to convert profitably. They might clean up chemical spills, oil spills, and other man-made environmental disasters.

But the question has always lingered: Does DNA alone define an organism or do other elements factor in? The study, published Thursday in the online version of the journal Science, appears to answer that question, at least for simple bacteria known as mycoplasma.

"Just the chromosome itself, without any accessory proteins, is all that is necessary to boot up this cell system," says Dr. Venter. "That's a very important finding for the future of this field.... It really simplifies the task."

Any tinkering with nature raises ethical questions, not to mention concerns over safety. But in this case scientists didn't create a truly new organism, Venter argues. The genome already existed and the resulting organism is identical to those found in nature. What's new is the process. And as scientists take the next logical step and move toward designing organisms completely from scratch, these questions of safety and ethics will move to the fore.

For decades, scientists have known that bacteria, which, unlike plants and animals, lack a defined nucleus, can freely swap genes. And Dolly, the sheep cloned in 1996, showed that a nucleus taken from one cell and implanted into another denucleated cell, could grow into a viable animal. But never before have scientists taken a species' naked DNA, without accessory proteins, and successfully put it into a different species, transforming it in the process.