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Experts invite public debate about organism-creation



London Times January 25, 1999

SCIENTISTS believe it might be possible within a decade to create
artificial life, the annual meeting of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science in Anaheim, California, was told yesterday.

A simple organism could be created piece by piece, assembling the genes in
the right order from knowledge gained by analysing the simplest of
free-living organisms. The result would be a stripped-down and entirely
man-made version of a parasite commonly found in the human body.

This Frankenstein possibility was raised by Dr Craig Venter, one of the
world's foremost experts in gene sequencing. He said he believed the
experiment was possible, but that he would not go ahead until full
consideration had been given to the ethical implications.

Dr Venter is well known in the genetic community for developing a rapid
system for discovering the sequences of the four basic letters in the
genetic alphabet that make up the genes. The ultimate aim is to produce a
full sequence of all 80,000 human genes, but 20 simpler organisms have
already been sequenced, including a number of parasites and bacteria, such
as those responsible for causing TB and stomach ulcers.

The idea of creating life comes from experiments designed to identify the
smallest number of genes that any free-living creature needs to survive.
Dr Venter, of Celera Genomics Corporation, believes that about 300 genes
is the least possible. He reached this conclusion from comparisons of the
complete sequences of two human parasites, Mycoplasma genitalium and
Mycoplasma pneumoniae.

The simpler of these is genitalium, which is found in the human genitary
tract but which is not known to cause any disease. It has 470 genes, about
200 less than pneumoniae, which is found in the respiratory tract and can
cause pneumonia.

In a series of experiments in which genes are "knocked out" and the effect
on the organism observed, Dr Venter and his colleagues are seeking to
identify how many genes are needed for an organism of this sort to keep
itself alive and what they are. Once this is known, it might be possible
to assemble the entire genome from the four basic chemicals, put together
in the right order to make up the backbone of the man-made organism's DNA.

To create an organism, it would also be necessary to enclose the genes in
a cell, either by using a cell emptied of its own DNA, or by creating an
artificial cell by wrapping lipids (fats) around the man-made DNA to form
a simple cell membrane. Dr Venter said he would not attempt it unless,
after careful consideration, a committee of experts agreed that the
benefits of creating life exceeded the risks.

He has put the idea to a high-level group of scientists, ethicists and
churchmen at the University of Pennsylvania. "The group hasn't come up
with any religious objections," he said. "It would be extremely difficult,
and it is not clear that it is do-able, but I think public discussion of
the issue is worthwhile in any case. It gets down to the fundamental
definitions of what life is."

He said the danger with the technology is that it might be misused to
create biological weapons, but the positive side is potentially greater.

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