US biologist denies he is playing God by creating artificial life
Published 22/05/2010 | 05:00
An American biologist who breathed life into a bacterium using genes assembled in the laboratory defended himself against accusations he was "playing God".
The creation of the "synthetic cell", described as a "landmark" by one British expert, is a 15-year dream come true for maverick genetics entrepreneur Dr Craig Venter.
It has major implications for genomics, including the manufacture of artificial organisms designed for specific tasks such as making vaccines or cleaning up pollution.
But experts recognise that there are potential dangers, too. Synthetic life could, for instance, pave the way for biological weapons.
Speaking last night from Washington on BBC2's 'Newsnight', Dr Venter dismissed suggestions that he was "playing God".
He said: "That's a term that comes up every time there is a new medical or scientific breakthrough associated with biology. It's been a goal of humanity from the earlier stages to try and control nature . . . that's how we got domesticated animals.
"This is the next stage in our understanding; it is a baby step in our understanding of how life fundamentally works and maybe how we can get some new handles on trying to control these microbial systems to benefit humanity."
Asked if the technique could be bought, he replied: "The technology is not for sale, the cells are not for sale."
He also dismissed the danger of bio-terrorism, stating: "Most people are in agreement that there is a slight increase in the potential for harm but there's an exponential increase in the potential benefit to society."
Dr Venter's researchers explain in the journal 'Science' how they effectively "re-booted" a simple microbe by transplanting into it a set of genetic code sequences that were built from scratch.
The genome was copied from the blueprint contained in Mycoplasma mycoides, a simple bacterium.
After first constructing short strands of DNA, the scientists used yeast cells as natural factory assembly lines.
The sequence was built in a step-by-step process. DNA repair systems in the yeast attached the pieces together, gradually lengthening the strands to finish up with a chromosome more than a million "letters" of genetic code long.
The final test came when the completed chromosome was transplanted into another bacterium, Mycoplasma capricolum, replacing its native DNA.
After a failed first attempt, the scientists brought the cells to life. Driven by the new genome, the bacteria took on the appearance and behaviour of M mycoides, generating different proteins and multiplying.
Describing the achievement, Dr Venter said: "This is the first synthetic cell that's been made, and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome.
"This is an important step we think, both scientifically and philosophically. It's certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works."
Professor Mark Bedau, editor of the journal 'Artificial Life', called it "a defining moment in the history of biology and technology".