Researchers produce first synthetic cell

Photo: J. Craig Venter Institute

Researchers in the US have developed the world’s first self-replicating bacteria cell controlled by a synthetic genome. The cell is derived from an artificial chromosome and was made using four bottles of chemicals and a computer. The development team have denied that they were playing God.


In a press release on Thursday researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute said that their work is the “proof of the principle that genomes can be designed on the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome”.

The work could be used to specifically design bacteria to produce biofuels or help clean up environmental hazards. Possible applications include the production of algae to help clean up carbon dioxide, one of the principal greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, and improvements in the development of vaccines.

The team spent 15 years on the publication of their research, work they said “consumed” them. Craig Venter was also keen to point out that they had made a lengthy analysis of the possible implications.

“We have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good,” he said.

However Venter stressed that the research was not an attempt at “playing God”.

“That’s a term that comes up every time there is a new medical or scientific breakthrough associated with biology,” he told the BBC.

“It’s been a goal of humanity from the earliest ages to try and control nature – that’s how we got agriculture, that’s how we got domesticated animals – this is the next stage in our understanding.”

The researchers added special “watermarks” to the synthetic genome to distinguish its biological signature from a natural example. The watermarks included the names of 46 scientists and authors, including the quotation, “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” from Irish writer James Joyce.

“They’ve been able to start with the four basic building blocks of DNA, combine them together in certain clever ways, then to take a bacterium, in such a way as to replicate the DNA, of an existing bacterium. Take another bacterium - take out its genetic material, just leaving the so-called empty cell, though, in fact, there’s an awful lot of stuff going on in the cell. Inject the artificially created DNA, and the cell starts to reproduce bacterium which are identical to the ones from which they created the artificial list of DNA in the first place, rather than the original bacterium which constituted the cell from which they started.”

John Worrall, Professor in Philosophy of Science, London School of Economics

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