US government sets out to create artificial life-form in laboratory

Craig Venter, the American scientist who led the private initiative to sequence the human genome, announced yesterday his intention to create a synthetic life-form in a test tube.

Dr Venter has received $3m (£2m) from the US government to create an artificial microbe that could be developed into anything from a new source of energy to a biological weapon. The project raises ethical concerns ranging from the role of scientists in "playing God" with nature to whether this form of genetic modification can ever be safely controlled.

Dr Venter has recruited Hamilton Smith, a distinguished Nobel laureate, to carry out the first part of the project, which is to build a synthetic chromosome carrying a ribbon of machine-made genes.

The US Department of Energy is funding a three-year study with the aim of creating "cost-effective and efficient biological energy sources," said a statement by Dr Venter's Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives in Washington DC.

"With fossil fuel consumption continuing to rise and with it serious damage to our planet, it is imperative that we explore alternative ideas to abate this situation," Dr Venter said. "We believe that building a synthetic chromosome is an important step towards realising these goals."

The aim of the project is to create a single-celled, man-made micro-organism with the minimal number of genes to sustain life. It will be deliberately hobbled to prevent it from being able to survive in the environment should it escape.

Dr Venter announced in 1999 his intention to create a synthetic micro-organism but the plan fell apart in the race to sequence the human genome and his subsequent disagreement with Celera, the company he founded to conduct the sequencing operation. However, the grant from the US department now means he can recruit a dedicated team of scientists. "We are wondering if we can come up with a molecular definition of life. The goal is to fundamentally understand the components of the most basic living cell," Dr Venter said.

Once the minimal number of genes are collated to sustain life, the scientists could add further genes for specific functions, such as those needed to produce a vital antibiotic. However, ethicists say such research could also be misused to create even more dangerous biological weapons.

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