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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.'

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"People would have predicted this would be possible based on what we know," says Philip Green, a professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, when informed of the project. "But you never know until you do it that it's going to work."

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Led by microbiologist John Glass, the researchers took DNA from mycoplasma mycoides, a small bacterium found in goat intestines, and introduced it into the body of a close relative, mycoplasma capricolum. About one in 150,000 took. Mycoplasmas have a small number of genes – around 500 – and no cell walls, which makes introducing DNA easier. The bacterium's simplicity also makes it a good place to begin determining the minimum instruction set, or genes, needed to create life, an important step in future attempts at designing life from the ground up.

While other researchers hail the technical achievement, they question the benefits of a build-from-scratch approach. When looking to design a useful organism, cost is the No. 1 concern, says George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. And starting from zero is the costliest approach.

"It's sort of like saying, 'If we could pull Manhattan to the ground and build a whole new set of skyscrapers, it would be better.' And maybe it would be. But it's expensive," he says. "I can think of lots of ways of improving Manhattan, but they don't include changing 100 percent; they include changing 1 percent."

When trying to create organisms that can more efficiently produce biofuels — turning woody matter into alcohol or gasoline-like compounds — nature already offers plenty of starting points, says Church — like the common E. coli.

"They need to show that this is cheaper or faster or something. And this paper doesn't do that," he says.

The study is an important academic achievement, but it's not critical to moving from fossil fuels to renewable biofuels, says Stephen del Cardayre, vice president of research and development at LS9 Inc., a San Carlos, Calif., company developing organisms to make biofuels. "There is much lower-hanging fruit."

Biofuels face several hurdles. The most obvious: They must be price-competitive with petroleum products. To meet that challenge, researchers are looking at microorganisms that could turn biomass into fuel more efficiently than today's processes.

With a few modifications, existing organisms can be designed to achieve these goals, says Dr. del Cardayre, adding that LS9 is about a year away from releasing its own "renewable petroleum" from a modified organism. "I don't need a synthetic organism to do that," he says.