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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Is this the Beginning of Artificial Life?

In what many believe to be a case of creating artificial life, American scientists have found a way of replicating a bacterium's 582,970 base pair genome which should allow for the creation of biofuel-manufacturing bacteria - in other words, building bacteria from scratch that might produce fuel for things like cars. It is the largest man-made DNA structure ever made. The previous largest one contained only 32,000 base pairs.

You can read about this in Science magazine.

Dr. Hamilton Smith, J. Craig Venter Institute, Rockville, USA, and sixteen others built a bacterium's genome by chemically synthesizing DNA blocks. These blocks were then weaved together to create bigger DNA pieces - these can be formed to create a synthetic version of Mycoplasma genitalium. The scientists say these tailor-made micro-organisms can be designed to produce hydrogen, or tweaked to absorb surplus carbon dioxide in the air.

The team is not using the term artificial life; they prefer to call it synthetic life. Dr. Smith, in a BBC interview, said "We like to distinguish synthetic life from artificial life. It sets the stage for what we hope is going to be a new approach to engineering organisms."

The J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) says this is the second of three key steps towards the team's aim of creating a fully synthetic organism. They are currently trying to create a living bacterial cell, based completely on the synthetically made genome.

J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., President and Founder of JCVI, said "This extraordinary accomplishment is a technological marvel that was only made possible because of the unique and accomplished JCVI team. Ham Smith, Clyde Hutchison, Dan Gibson, Gwyn Benders, and the others on this team dedicated the last several years to designing and perfecting new methods and techniques that we believe will become widely used to advance the field of synthetic genomics."

The scientists explain that building blocks of DNA - adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T) are tremendously tricky chemicals to artificially synthesize into chromosomes. The longer the strands become the more brittle they are, making it very hard to work with them. Making the genome of the M. genitalium bacteria with over 580,000 base pairs was an enormous challenge.

Hamilton Smith said "When we started this work several years ago, we knew it was going to be difficult because we were treading into unknown territory. Through dedicated teamwork we have shown that building large genomes is now feasible and scalable so that important applications such as biofuels can be developed."

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