GENTECH archive


Craig Venter creates new form of life

Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) President Dr. Craig Venter predicted
Saturday that he will create a new form of life within a decade. 
Creating a new 
form of life 
Genetic researchers aim to ‘build’ 
artificial bacteria within a decade
By Charlene Laino
ANAHEIM, Calif., Jan. 23 — Blurring the line between science and science
fiction further than ever before, a prominent genetics researcher predicted
Saturday that he will create a new form of life within a decade. The man-made
life form — artificial bacteria — could be used to clean up environmental
spills or to create new drug delivery systems, said J. Craig Venter, director
of The Institute of Genetics Research in Rockville, Md.                      

Research BUT BEFORE scientists introduce a new form of life, a community-wide
debate on the ethics of such research must take place, said Venter, a pioneer
in the rapidly growing field of genomics.
If, through genomics, “we can get down to the building blocks of life, can we
rebuild them into a new organism?” he asked. “No doubt, we can.
“But is that ethical? And what are the implications in terms of biowarfare?”
Venter has been mired in controversy for years, in 1998 announcing that he
would take his genetic sequencing knowledge and join forces with a private
company. Their goal: to unravel the genome, or DNA sequence, of humans by the
year 2001 - faster and less expensively than the government. 
What made it possible, Venter said, are highly automated sequencing machines
that have greater computational power, allowing researchers to blast 10
into billions of base pairs and then reassemble them, in order. 
To power the research, TIGR built one of the biggest computers in the world,
which occupies most of a 26,000 square-foot floor of its building.
The federally sponsored Human Genome Project, one the other hand, utilizes a
clone-by-clone approach that more slowly - though critics say more
accurately —
build billions of DNA pieces into the approximately 60,000 genes that make up
the human genome. 
But even as they chip away at unraveling the human genome, TIGR has already
published the complete genetic sequence of several other organisms.

To build a new organism from scratch, Venter said, scientists first needed to
arrive at a molecular definition of life - the minimum set of genes that
contains the complete instructions to build and operate a living organism.
The smallest known genome turned out to be Mycoplasma genitalium, which sports
just 470 genes compared to the 60,000 to 80,000 genes that comprise man. A
ubiquitous and relatively harmless bacterium, almost everyone has been
with Mycoplasma genitalium at some point.
Once his team had its entire genome sequence, they started knocking out
different genes to see if it would still code for the entire organism.
“What we
were surprised at is the number of the 470 genes in Mycoplasma genitalium that
we could knock out and still have a complete organism,” Venter said. “Our best
estimate at this point is that we can knock out some 200 genes, meaning that
only 300 or so are needed.”
Once they know exactly which 300 are needed, he said, they can splice them
together and create a new creature.
The new life form could then be tailored with other genes so that it absorbs
toxins, for example, or can deliver drugs, Venter said.

But would such a new life form be unethical, giving terrorists the basic
ammunition they need to create a new form of biowarfare?
To answer those questions, a national debate is needed, most scientists agree.
Microbiologist Dr. Frank Young, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration, who is now at the Reformed Theological Seminary, said
Venter’s work provides us with new ammunition against terrorists.
“In the viral terrorism field, there are always going to be new technologies
developed by the noble that could be taken over by the bad guys,” he said.
it is always better to know what we are dealing with than not to know.
“With Venter’s advances, we can know within minutes, rather than days, what
comprises a particular agent. The biggest deterrent to an enemy is to know
rapidly what you are dealing with.
“By the very nature of being able to identify it, we can defeat it