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9-Misc: Craig Venter plans to build synthetic bacterium

-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Venter revives synthetic bug talk
SOURCE: British Broadcasting Corporation, by David Whitehouse
DATE:   4 Jul 2005

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Venter revives synthetic bug talk

Craig Venter - one of the scientists behind the sequencing of the human
genetic code - aims to construct a living organism from a kit of genes.

It would be a biological milestone were he to succeed and would open a
debate about the nature of life.

Dr Venter's company will work out the minimum number of genes a bacterium
needs, synthesise the genetic material and then put it in an empty cell.

Ultimately, designer bacteria could be used for industrial tasks, he claims.

Dr Venter has been this way before when initiated a project in the late
1990s to determine the minimum number of genes required to sustain a lifeform.

At the time, the work prompted ethical discussions over the limits to
which humans should try to manipulate a living organism.

Next great phase

"Our sequencing of the first genomes, including the human genome, set the
stage for this next great phase in understanding biology, which will
ultimately enable us to pursue applications that will improve the
environment and transform several industries," says Hamilton Smith, a
Nobel laureate and co-founder of Synthetic Genomics.

Synthetic Genomics intends to construct an organism with a "minimal
genome" that can then be inserted into the shell of a bacterium.

Initially, Dr Venter plans to replace the genes in the 517-gene
Mycoplasma genitalium , and then alter the bug so that it is tailor-made
for certain industrial uses, such as cleaning up pollution or even
removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.

Two years ago, Dr Venter impressed the scientific world, and alarmed the
public, when his team synthesised a genome to create the bacteriophage

Although other researchers had constructed a virus from the genome up
before Dr Venter, the Maryland scientist has long held the aim to
construct the first man-made bacterium; this is a far more complex task.

Currently, Synthetic Genomics is removing the genes, one by one, from M.
genitalium to identify the right gene set for the organism to survive in
a controlled environment.

It is work that builds on research Dr Venter and colleagues at The
Institute for Genomic Research (Tigr) published in 2002.

Benefits and risks

Once that has been done Synthetic Genomics will attempt to synthesise the
genome and then "add the desired biological capabilities", before
inserting the genetic construct into an environment "that allows
metabolic activity and replication", the company says. In other words,
the company would try to create the first semi-artificial cell.

According to Dr Venter: "Rapid advances now enable us to synthesise novel
photosynthetic and metabolic pathways. Using diverse sets of genes,
including those from over 300 fully sequenced genomes, will allow our new
company to develop synthetic organisms for specific industrial applications.

 "We are in an era of rapid advances in science and are beginning the
transition from being able to not only read genetic code, but are now
moving to the early stages of being able to write code," he said.

Three organisations - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT);
the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland; and the Center for
Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC - have just begun a
15-month study to examine the societal implications of synthetic genomics.

It will explore the risks and benefits of the emerging technology, as
well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism.

"The field of synthetic genomics has the potential for groundbreaking
scientific advances, including the development of alternative energy
sources, and the production of new vaccines and pharmaceuticals," claimed
Dr Venter.

"Synthetic genomics has the potential to enable significant societal,
environmental and medical benefits, and with this study we are trying to
help ensure that outcome."

 The first synthetic virus was assembled in 2002 by a team from the
University of New York at Stony Brook.

It was built from scratch using the genome sequence from the polio virus.

And earlier this year, scientists at Rockefeller University produced
small synthetic vesicles that could process (express) genes in much the
same way as bacterial cells do it.

Dr Venter is best known for his role in a company called Celera Genomics
and its mission to produce a private version of the human genetic code.
Celera Genomics planned to sell the information to subscribers.

The business model did not succeed, largely because the publicly funded
version of the code was posted without restriction on the internet.


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