Scientists Successfully 'Boot Up' Cell with Synthetic DNA

A group of scientists announced Thursday that it has successfully replaced all of the natural DNA inside a cell with laboratory-synthesized DNA, creating the first-ever "synthetic cell."

The team, led by Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute, presented its findings in an article published on the website of the journal Science, run by the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

In the study, the scientists explained how they synthesized the genome of the bacterium M. mycoides and added DNA sequences that "watermarked" the genome to distinguish it from a natural one.

They also explained how they transplanted the synthetic M. mycoides genome into another type of bacteria, Mycoplasm capricolum, which is closely related to M. mycoides.

Although fourteen genes were deleted or disrupted in the transplant bacteria, the scientists said the bacteria still looked like normal M. mycoides bacteria and produced only M. mycoides proteins.

"This is the first synthetic cell that's been made," said Venter, calling the cell synthetic because it was completely derived from a synthetic chromosome - "made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer."

"This becomes a very powerful tool for trying to design what we want biology to do," Venter added. "We have a wide range of applications [in mind]."

While the announcement by Venter's team raises the prospect of a number of benefits, such as the ability to accelerate vaccine development, it also raises potential societal and ethical concerns, as John P. Holden, President Obama's Science and Technology advisor, noted Thursday.

For this reason, Obama has called upon his recently-created Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to consider the implications of the advance and report back to him within six months.

"In its study, the Commission should consider the potential medical, environmental, security, and other benefits of this field of research, as well as any potential health, security or other risks," Obama wrote in a letter Thursday to commission chair Amy Gutmann.

"Further, the Commission should develop recommendations about any actions the Federal government should take to ensure that America reaps the benefits of this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks," the president added.

Obama encouraged the commission to consult with a range of constituencies – including scientific and medical communities, faith communities, and business and nonprofit organizations – stating that it is "vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance of this kind of scientific development."

"With the Commission's collective expertise in the areas of science, policy, and ethical and religious values, I am confident that it will carry out this responsibility with the care and attention it deserves," the president concluded.

Acknowledging the ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology research, Venter told reporters that his team had asked for an independent bioethical review in the late 1990s before conducting the first experiments and waited until the conclusions of the extensive probe were released two years later before moving forward with what he called a "15-year quest."

"We asked Art Caplan's team at the University of Pennsylvania to undertake a review of what the risks, the challenges, the ethics around creating new species in the laboratory were as it hadn't been done before," Venter said during a press conference Thursday.

And that review, Venter told AAAS earlier, was just "part of an ongoing process that we've been driving."

"[W]e've been … trying to make sure that the science proceeds in an ethical fashion, that we're being thoughtful about what we do and looking forward to the implications to the future," he said.

In a published article on the research, Venter's team said they anticipate that their work "will continue to raise philosophical issues that have broad societal and ethical implications" as synthetic genomic applications expand.

And as scientists who "have been driving the ethical discussion concerning synthetic life from the earliest stages of this work," they said they encourage the continued discourse.

"This is an important step we think, both scientifically and philosophically," Venter said. "It's certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works."

Aside from working on ways to speed up vaccine production, researchers are planning to design algae that can capture carbon dioxide and make new hydrocarbons that could go into refineries. Making new chemicals or food ingredients and cleaning up water are other possible benefits, according to Venter.

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