Playing God: the man who would create artificial life

The possibility of a synthetic life form being created in a laboratory has come tantalisingly close to reality after scientists said last night that they had generated the largest man-made molecule of DNA – the chemical blueprint of life.

For the first time researchers, led by the controversial American scientific entrepreneur Craig Venter, have manufactured the entire DNA genome of a free-living micro-organism. This means that "artificial life" is on the verge of being created in a test tube.

The huge DNA molecule represents the chromosome that makes up the complete genome of Mycoplasma genitalium, a parasitic microbe that lives in the reproductive tract. Dr Venter and his colleagues made the chromosome by placing each of its 582,970 individual chemical units in their correct genetic sequence.

The achievement was the final step necessary before the scientists attempt their ultimate goal of inserting the synthetic genome into the empty "shell" of a non-living cell to see if they can create a fully-replicating, man-made organism.

Dr Venter said the aim of the research was to make new, artificial life forms that can help to solve the world's most pressing environmental problems, for instance by producing green biofuels, breaking down toxic waste or even absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

He emphasised that any new microbes created by the process would be made incapable of infecting other organisms – especially humans – and that they would not be able to survive beyond the confines of a laboratory because of self-destruct mechanisms built into their DNA.

Dr Venter compared the achievement to the creation of a software programme for the operating system of a computer. The next step would be to put the operating system into the computer hardware of an empty cell and see if it could be "booted up".

"We want to emphasise that we have not yet booted up these synthetic chromosomes ... There are some problems to be overcome, but we are confident that they will be," Dr Venter said. "I'd be surprised if we couldn't do it in 2008."

The work, published in the journal Science, was carried out at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, by a team that included Hamilton Smith, who won a share of the 1978 Nobel Prize for his discovery of ways to cut DNA into fragments using chemicals called restriction enzymes.

Dr Smith said the study created 101 DNA fragments or "cassettes", each composed of between 5,000 and 7,000 DNA units, or base pairs, covering the entire length of the mycoplasma's chromosome. The cassettes were first grown, or "cloned", inside the cells of living bacteria and then transferred into yeast cells to make the final, fully-formed chromosome.

"We have completely chemically synthesised an entire Mycoplasma genitalium chromosome. It's about 580,000 nucleotides in length and we've successfully cloned the chromosome in yeast," Dr Smith said.

Mycoplasma genitalium was chosen because it has one of the smallest known genomes and the scientists were interested in knowing the minimal set of genes required to create a free-living organism. Its genome was first sequenced in 1995, by a team that included Dr Venter and Dr Smith.

In 1999, Dr Venter said he intended to start a minimal genome project based on mycoplasma to see which genes were essential for life, and which were superfluous.

"The goal would be to get a cell where every gene is absolutely essential so you can't mutate any of the genes without killing the cell," Dr Smith said.

"I like the analogy with the computer. You have an operating system which, by itself, doesn't do anything, but when you install it on a computer, then you have a working computer system.

"It's the same with the genome. The genome is the operating system for a cell and the cytoplasm of the cell is the hardware that is required to run that genome. The two together make a living, reproducing cells. So when we chemically synthesise the genome it's of no use sitting in the test tube, you have to transplant it into a receptive cytoplasm. Once you do that, then the genome is expressed and you have a dividing cell."

He said the synthesised genome would then be transplanted to see if his theory worked.

In the long term, the scientists want to engineer an artificial genome, containing extra sets of genes that can perform useful tasks, for example creating new biofuels such as pure hydrogen, which is one of the cleanest sources of energy.

Dr Hamilton said: "When we started this work several years ago, we knew it was going to be difficult. We have shown that building large genomes is feasible so that important applications such as biofuels can be developed," .

Dr Venter brushed aside questions about the ethics of creating artificial life forms, saying that he did not know of an area of modern science "that started with the ethical discussions before the first experiment was done".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
news
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living