Scientists are closer to synthetic life

January 25, 2008 12:21:19 AM PST
Researchers are one step closer to creating synthetic life. On thursday, scientists in Maryland announced the first man-made bacterial genome.

A feat which underscores the emerging field of synthetic biology.

By stitching together its chemical components, scientists, for the first time, succeeded in creating a man-made copy of a bacterial genome.

The research, led by scientist-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter -- marks an important step in the quest to create life from scratch.

"The idea here is you're not just copying DNA from a cell to a cell, but you're copying a synthetic DNA from a machine into a cell," said Professor Chris Smith.

Chris Smith is a professor at San Francisco State's Department of Biology. He says this latest research paves the way to create made-to-order organisms.

"When you make it in a machine, you can design it yourself, you can go to a computer, you can type in any DNA sequence you want, you can tell the machine to make those sequences and then you can reassemble all those sequences," said Smith.

The possibilities are endless -- scientists say by creating organisms that do things natural organisms don't -- many of today's problems would go away.

They could make plants that absorb large amounts of carbon from the air to slow global warming, bacteria that eat sugar to produce medicine, or microbes that turn grass clippings into fuel.

None of it however, is enough, to convince USF ethics professor Raymond Dennehy.

He fears synthetic biology could be used to create pathogens, or anything else someone with evil intent could think of.

"Beware of personal desire masquerading as public good, also in science beware of barbarous behavior masquerading as scientific progress," said Professor Dennehy.

Despite the concern, scientists are moving forward with their plans to create the first synthetic organism; but they have a ways to go, however.

Although the research team managed to write the software code for a bacterium, they haven't figured out how to turn it on and make it live. Scientists say that's the next and biggest step.