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First synthetic cell created in a laboratory

24 May 2010
Appeared in BioNews 559

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'.

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4 April 2016 - by James Brooks 
Scientists have designed and created a functional, self-replicating cell containing only 473 genes – the smallest genome of any organism to be grown in a lab...
14 February 2011 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
The creation of human life through artificial means is often portrayed as an inherently dangerous and unnatural process, where the product of any such attempt is assumed to be somehow inferior and lacking in humanity. This is a recurrent idea that looms over contemporary debate surrounding many scientific advances and technologies in biology, from reproductive cloning to embryonic stem cell (ESC) research, IVF and human genetics....
24 May 2010 - by Dr Gabrielle Samuel 
As an ex-genetic researcher I was incredibly excited to hear in last week's news that researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute, US, have successfully constructed the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell....
21 December 2009 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
There is a risk that advances in synthetic biology and low-cost DNA sequencing and synthesis could lead to the misuse of genetic technologies for bioterrorism purposes, where sequences of DNA could be ordered from a commercial gene synthesis provider and genetically engineered into a biological warfare agent....
24 August 2009 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
US scientists have developed a new technique to help them genetically modify bacteria. This new technology may prove to be a crucial step in the eventual creation of a man-made bacterium which, if achieved, would be the first-ever synthetic organism....
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