May 21, 2010 -- In a development that seems likely to stir a firestorm of controversy, researchers said Thursday that they have used genes made in the lab to create a synthetic species of bacteria.
"We're here to announce the first synthetic cell," said J. Craig Venter, head of the self-named J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., and leader of one of the teams that decoded the human genome.
He told reporters that the new species -- dubbed Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 -- is similar to one found in nature, except that the chromosome that controls each cell was created from scratch. The research is reported in the May 20 issue of the journal Science.
The new species, Venter said, started with researchers digitizing the genetic code for the new species on computers, then assembling the nucleotides using "four bottles of chemicals" into sections of DNA. The DNA sections were assembled in yeast cells to form a synthetic chromosome, which was then transferred to a related species of bacteria, M. capricolum.
Late in March, the researchers told reporters, the modified cells began replicating and formed a "blue colony" of the new species.
"This is the first self-replicating species that we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer," Venter said.
Indeed, he and his colleagues consistently used computer language to describe the work. The new chromosome is like an operating system, they said, and it reprograms the M. capricolum cells to become M. mycoides.
The result comes after 15 years of research -- and some $40 million -- aimed at finding what Venter has called the minimal genome: the smallest set of genes that can support a living creature. But it could quickly have spinoffs, the researchers said.
Among the possibilities are new tools for vaccine and pharmaceutical development, as well as new biofuels and biochemicals, they said. Venter suggested during the press conference that synthetic algae might be designed to cope with oil spills such as the one currently threatening the Gulf Coast of the United States.
Along with genes needed for life, the researchers added "watermark" DNA sequences to distinguish the synthetic genome from a natural one.
The watermarks include the names of 46 scientists who worked on the project, a website address for the new species, and quotations from author James Joyce and physicist Richard Feynman.
Describing the new species as "synthetic" may be going too far, according to some experts.
It's "synthetic in the sense that its DNA is synthesized, not in that a new life form has been created," according to Jim Collins, professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University and an expert in synthetic biology. "Its genome is a stitched-together copy of the DNA of an organism that exists in nature, with a few small tweaks thrown in."
Collins made that observation in a short commentary on the research, one of eight published in the rival journal Nature and released today.
But bioethicist Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the commentary that the result is "one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind."
He argued that creating the synthetic genome finally rings the death knell for the notion of vitalism, the idea that there is a life force that distinguishes living matter from the inorganic.
Robert Field, professor of Law and Health Management and Policy at Drexel University, said the "ability to create new life forms may be emerging from the world of science fiction."
But such advances come with uncertainty, Field said. "Will everything we create be benign, or is Frankenstein now in the realm of possibility?"
Mark Bedau, professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Ore., also writing in the Nature commentary, called the new species "a normal bacterium with a prosthetic genome."
The importance of the finding, he argued, is that such a prosthetic genome is not limited -- as the watermarks inserted by Venter and colleagues demonstrate -- to what's found in nature.
Because of that, scientists now have "an unprecedented opportunity to learn about life" that brings with it the need for new ways of thinking about precautions and risk analysis.
Indeed, Venter noted that he and colleagues were stalled for several months because one of the pieces of DNA they painstakingly crafted had a type -- a single base-pair deletion -- that means the whole chromosome could not function.
"So accuracy is essential," he said. "There's parts of the genome where it can't tolerate even a single error and there's parts where we can put in large blocks of DNA and it can tolerate all kinds of errors."
Despite that sensitivity in the lab, Venter told a reporter "it's not clear there are any" downsides to the research. Although all technologies are "dual-use," he said he thinks the work is a "linear advance" in the ability to harm and an "exponential advance" in potentially beneficial science.