Scientists have been taking steps to build life from the nano-scale for some time. In 1968, Indian-American chemist Har Gobind Khorana received a Nobel Prize for synthesising nucleotides (the chemical sub-units - A, T, C, G - that make up the DNA molecule), stringing them together into synthetic DNA. By February 1976, a California research team (that later founded Genentech) developed an automated process for synthesising DNA and constructed a fully functioning synthetic gene. Synthetic genes and synthetic DNA are now a staple of genetic engineering in medicine and agriculture.
Building Viruses from Segments of DNA - Recent Research Projects
In 2002, researchers at Stony Brook (the State University of New York) synthesised the 7,440 letters in the poliovirus’s genome using mail order segments of DNA. It took the Stony Brook researchers three years to build a live polio virus from scratch. Less than two years later, a team led by Craig Venter (formerly of the Human Genome Project) was able to synthesise a slightly smaller virus in just three weeks, raising the prospect of rapid assembly of artificial micro-organisms - and the possibility of designing dangerous bio-warfare agents from scratch.
Building a New Type of Bacterium Using Lab-Manufactured DNA
Venter, who heads the Institute of Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA), is now building a new type of bacterium using DNA manufactured in the laboratory. His team is modifying DNA from Mycoplasma genitalium, a bacterium that has the smallest number of genes of any living cell, with the goal of reducing it to only those genes necessary for life. The researchers will insert the minimal life form back into a normal bacterial cell that has been stripped of its DNA.
What Are the Benefits of Building Synthetic Organisms?
According to Professor Clyde Hutchison, a biochemist who helped sequence the Mycoplasma genome, “The advantage of a synthetic organism over manipulating natural organisms ... is then you would have a lot more control over the properties of the cell than if you rely on natural mechanisms. For either good purposes or bad purposes ... you’d be in a better position to design exactly what you want.”
Industry Applications for Synthetic Organisms
With funding from the US Department of Energy (DoE), Venter’s eventual goal is to build synthetic organisms that could produce energy and mitigate climate change. Both Venter and the DOE point to the wider applications of synthetic life, noting that benefits could include “the development of better vaccines and safer strategies for gene therapy; improving agricultural crop yields that are better disease resistance [sic] and improving strategies for combating agricultural diseases and even enhancing our ability to detect and defeat potential biothreat agents which is important to homeland security.” Venter has hinted that he will unveil a novel, artificial genome in late 2004 that is larger than a virus but smaller than a bacterium.
Creating Artificial Nucleotides - Current Research Projects
In the summer of 2003, ETC Group reported on research at the University of Florida to create an artificial nucleotide, a human-made counterpart to one of the four chemical components that make up DNA (A, G, C and T). Since then, other researchers at the University of Florida have been able to add a second artificial letter - so that there are six in all - and, more remarkably, to coax the newly-expanded DNA molecule to make copies of itself. The research team was able to “evolve” its artificial DNA through five generations.
What are the Benefits of Creating Artificial Nucleotides?
According to the lead scientist on the project, the advance “will enhance our ability to detect unwanted genetic material from viruses, bacteria and even biological warfare agents. It will also streamline our ability to detect defects in natural DNA, such as those responsible for cancers and genetic diseases.” As ETC Group pointed out last year, these advances are either the greatest thing since spliced DNA, or they could create end products that contribute as much to biological weaponry as to disease detection and new medicines.