Researchers Build First ‘Synthetic Cell’
Researchers have created the first cell powered by a man-made genome, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Science. The genetic code of the cell was stitched together in a laboratory.
“This is the first self-replicating species that we’ve had on this planet whose parent is a computer,” lead researcher J. Craig Venter told reporters.
The achievement brings scientists one step closer to the goal of creating novel life forms that function differently from life forms that already exist — such as new bacteria that can efficiently turn algae into fuel. But for now, the bacteria the scientists created is simply an artificial replica of one that already exists.
Venter and his team began by building in their lab a synthetic copy of the mycoides bacterium’s natural genome, using the four base building blocks — adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine — that make up all DNA.
The synthetic genome was nearly an exact replica of the original genome, but with a few “watermark” sequences added in. Those sequences do not affect the genome’s activity but make it possible to identify it later as the synthetic code.
Then, the scientists transplanted the synthetic genome into a different type of bacterial cell, called Mycoplasma capricolum, which then went on to behave and reproduce like a mycoides cell.
Each of these steps took years — the researchers have been working on the project for 15 years, and have reported many of the steps along the way in journal articles.
Researchers called Thursday’s news a “milestone”: “It’s been a long time coming, and it was worth the wait,” George Church, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor, told the Associated Press. “It’s a milestone that has potential practical applications.”
But some cautioned that the results should not be overblown. Jim Collins, a synthetic biologist at Boston University, told USA Today that the results don’t mean that Venter has “created life.”
“We don’t know enough biology to create or synthesize life,” he said. “I think we’re far removed from understanding how would you build a truly artificial genome from scratch.”