Scientists have turned inanimate chemicals into a living organism in an experiment that raises profound questions about the essence of life.
Craig Venter, the US genomics pioneer, announced on Thursday that scientists at his laboratories in Maryland and California had succeeded in their 15-year project to make the world’s first “synthetic cells” – bacteria called Mycoplasma mycoides.
“We have passed through a critical psychological barrier,” Dr Venter told the FT. “It has changed my own thinking, both scientifically and philosophically, about life and how it works.”
The bacteria’s genes were all constructed in the laboratory “from four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information on a computer,” he said.
The research – published online by the journal Science – was hailed as a landmark by many independent scientists and philosophers.
“Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny,” said Julian Savulescu, ethics professor at Oxford University. “This is a step towards … creation of living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally evolved.”
The synthetic bacteria have 14 “watermark sequences” attached to their genome – inert stretches of DNA added to distinguish them from their natural counterparts. They behaved and divided in lab dishes like natural bacteria.
M mycoides was chosen as a simple microbe with which to develop and prove the technology. It has no immediate application.
They are particularly interested in designing algae that can capture carbon dioxide from the air and produce hydrocarbon fuels.
Last year Synthetic Genomics signed a $600m agreement with Exxon Mobil to make algal biofuels. “We have looked hard at natural algae and we can’t find one that can make the fuels we want on the scales we need,” Dr Venter said.
The researchers built up the synthetic genome of M mycoides, with its million chemical letters, by stitching together shorter stretches of DNA, each about 1,000 letters long. They then transferred the completed genome into the shell of another bacterium M capricolum whose own DNA had been removed.
The transplanted genome “booted up” the host cell and took over its biological machinery. After 30 cell divisions, there were billions of synthetic bacteria in the lab dishes – all of them making exclusively the biological molecules associated with M mycoides.
Experts warn of the risks as well as the benefits of synthetic biology. “We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse,” said Prof Savulescu.