Leading article: Living it up

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The idea of creating new life forms in the laboratory would once have sounded like the ultimate in human hubris. But it is a goal that jumped closer yesterday. Craig Venter, the geneticist and scientific pioneer, is proposing to create a species of built-to-order bacteria, using synthetically developed DNA codes. Dr Venter's laboratory announced yesterday that they have created the largest man-made DNA structure. The next step is to implant this genome into a living cell to create the world's first "synthetic" organism.

This opens up new worlds of possibility. Forget the Prince Charles-style fears about life being reduced to "grey goo" by meddling scientists. If this technique works it could enhance human life in numerous ways. It could produce more effective antibiotics. It could revolutionise the biofuels industry by removing the need to use crops such as corn for the raw material. One US company is already planning to use modified E.coli bacteria to convert plant matter into a gasoline-like fuel.

It has even been suggested that an organism could be developed that could suck harmful C02 out of the atmosphere. If produced in biological factories on a significant scale, this could make a significant contribution to efforts to forestall catastrophic climate change.

Of course, such products are still some way in the future. But the present financial meltdown in the Western world has focused attention on wealth creation and the question of what is, and is not, worth investing in. Synthetic genomics looks like a growth industry in every sense of the word.