Genetic engineers create artificial life form using synthetic DNA

Genetic engineers have created an artificial life form using synthetic DNA, leading to both hopes for beneficial new technology and fear of bioterrorism. Flickr photo.

Genetic engineers have announced that they have created a living organism with synthetic DNA sequencing. That scientists have created a so-called life form from scratch has created a good news/bad news scenario. Man-made DNA sequencing could lead to new fuels, drugs, vaccines and sources of food. It also leads some to imagine thriller scenarios like killer germs in the hands of state-sponsored bioterrorists. And then there’s the Catholic church, which has, by ancient custom, issued a warning to scientists about synthetic DNA.

Synthetic genome sequencing from scratch

Synthetic DNA sequencing is the result of 15 years of work and an investment of $40 million by the J. Craig Venter Institute. As reported Friday in the journal Science, genetic engineers succeeded for the first time in making a copy of a bacterium’s entire genome. The synthetic genome was then transplanted into a different bacteria emptied of its own genome. Once the DNA assimilated, the recipient bacteria began to function and reproduce in the same manner as the naturally occurring bacteria from which the synthetic DNA was copied.

Gluing together genetic code

Computer designed synthetic bacteria have fueled scientific curiosity for years with the promise of a big pay day from cheap, efficient production of custom enzymes, fuels and medications. The Christian Science Monitor reports that to create the synthetic DNA, scientists at J. Craig Venter Institute used yeast to glue together thousands of DNA snippets. With painstaking microscopic precision, the strands of genetic code came together in runs of tens of thousands of base pairs, and then hundreds of thousands, until the yeast produced a complete 1.08 million-base-pair synthetic genome.

Genetic engineering controversies

Genetic engineering of synthetic DNA, if perfected, promises exciting technological benefits. At the same time, it arouses fear and the attention of government regulation. Bloomberg reports that some bioscientists warn that genetic engineering companies like the J. Craig Venter Institute that can manufacture synthetic DNA should watch their backs. Speaking about the way the J. Craig Venter Institute coordinated efforts with other laboratories to cook up the genome, James Collins, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-supported bioengineer at Boston University, told Bloomberg that “They sent out chunks of the genetic code to companies and asked them each to synthesize parts of it,” Collins said. “You don’t want bad guys to order 10 parts of a nasty virus from 10 different groups and then put them together.”

Synthetic DNA scares Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has weighed in on the issue. The Associated Press reports that Catholic Church officials said Friday that the recently created first synthetic cell could be a positive development if correctly used, but warned scientists that only God can create life. Bishop Domenico Mogavero, expressed concern that scientists might be tempted to play God. “Pretending to be God and parroting his power of creation is an enormous risk that can plunge men into a barbarity,” Mogavero told the newspaper La Stampa in an interview. Scientists “should never forget that there is only one creator: God.”

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