For the first time artificial life has been created in a laboratory, in the form of a bacterium. US researchers have chemically synthesised the DNA of the simple bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. This entirely man-made genome was transferred into a different bacterium and resulted in the creation of new Mycoplasma mycoides cells controlled solely by the artificial genome.
'It is pretty stunning when you just replace the DNA software in a cell and the cell instantly starts reading that new software and starts making a whole new set of proteins, and within a short while all the characteristics of the first species disappear and a new species emerges. That's a pretty important change in how we approach and think about life', said Dr Craig Venter, who led the study at the J Craig Venter Institute, US.
The study, published this month in Science, details how the artificial genome of Mycoplasma mycoides was designed using smaller stretches of DNA sequence ordered from a company. 'Watermark' DNA sequences were added in order to identify this genome as synthetic. The DNA sequences were then assembled together using yeast. The newly synthesised genome was transplanted into Mycoplasma capricolum, which went on to divide. Daughter cells were then identified that were exclusively using the artificial genome and had been converted into Mycoplasma mycoides.
'This cell we've made is not a miracle cell that's useful for anything, it is a proof of concept. But the proof of concept was key, otherwise it is just speculation and science fiction. This takes us across that border, into a new world', said Dr Venter. The long-term goals of this research are to create cells with specific functional applications, such as the mass production of pharmaceutical drugs and the ability to clean up oil spills.
Although the future applications of such artificially designed organisms could be beneficial, there are concerns over the misuse of this technology. Professor Julian Savulescu, an ethicist at Oxford University, commented that this technology '...could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable'.
In an interview aired by ITN Dr Venter said: 'It is clearly a dual use technology, as most modern technologies are, that can be used for negative purposes or positive ones. In all our reviews of this with government officials, the view is that this is maybe a linear increase in the negative potential but an exponential increase in the tools to do good and ensure a healthy, long-term survival for our planet'.