Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have created a synthetic cell that can survive and reproduce itself according to an artificial DNA sequence, promising designer genomes with which researchers can produce sophisticated artificial organisms.
The new bacterial cell, "Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0," is the result of a 15-year, $30 million effort by genetics pioneer Craig Venter. The study, led by the institute's Dan Gibson, is reported in the May 21 edition of the journal Science.
The team of 25 researchers took Mycoplasma capricolum bacteria and completely rewrote its genetic code of more than 1 million base pairs of DNA. The data was sequenced as chemical DNA fragments and sewn together using yeast and E. coli bacteria.
The synthetic genome was transplanted into empty Mycoplasma mycoides bacteria, which were transformed into a new species. The creature's software-like name, JCVI-syn1.0, reflects its status as the first of its kind.
To prove the genome is synthetic and to assert their ownership, the scientists even "watermarked" it by forming encoded words with the alphabet of genes and proteins. They included three quotations, among them a line from "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce: "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life." They also added a URL and e-mail address to allow researchers who decode the words to notify the institute.
Venter intends to patent the new cells, produced with funding from Synthetic Genomics, a genomics company that he founded in 2005.
Although the cell is primitive and lacks its own membrane, the techniques developed to create it promise groundbreaking advances in gene engineering and the rise of designer genomes. The achievement also raises ethical questions, not only about the creation of artificial life but the legitimacy of patenting it.
"The ability to routinely write the software of life will usher in a new era in science, and with it, new products and applications such as advanced biofuels, clean water technology, and new vaccines and medicines," the institute, located in Rockville, Md., and San Diego, said on its Web site.
Scientists who were not involved in the study are cautioning that the new species is not a truly synthetic life form because its genome was put into an existing cell. But they are also hailing the results. Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University called it "a turning point in the relationship between man and nature."