24 January 2008

Craig Venter Is Not God! Claims Biologist Helen Wallace -- Venter's Wife Declined Comment

Scientists at the Craig Venter Institute were able to synthetically reproduce the genome of a Mycoplasma bacterium--the simplest of life forms. While not the same thing as actually creating a new life form, the feat did require developing genome assembly techniques that will be very useful later when novel lifeforms are actually created.
A team of 17 researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, describes in the journal Science how it has successfully created the largest man-made DNA structure, indeed the largest synthetic molecule, the circular genetic code of an artificial bacterium that it is now trying to breed in the lab.

The scientists led by the human genome pioneer Dr Craig Venter want to create new kinds of bacterium, living chemical factories if you like, to make new types of bugs which can be used as green fuels to replace oil and coal, digest toxic waste or absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere....the team specially designed fragments of lab-synthesised DNA to build 101 "cassettes", each consisting of 5,000 to 7,000 letters (base pairs, in the scientific jargon) of genetic code.

Dr Venter's team, notably Clyde Hutchison and the Nobel laureate Ham Smith, also created "watermarks" in the synthetic genome - which had no purpose other than to show it was man made - and knocked out a gene to render it harmless. Essentially, however, the team was trying to make a copy of a natural genome, not design one from scratch.

From here, the team developed novel methods and techniques to assemble the genome, which are the subject of patent applications. "One reason it took so long is that we were trying to develop techniques that were highly robust," says Dr Venter.

They devised a five stage assembly process where the cassettes were joined together in the correct order in sub-assemblies to make larger and larger overlapping pieces that would eventually be combined to build the whole synthetic M. genitalium genome, a ring of DNA consisting of 582,970 letters. At each stage of assembly, the growing pieces were sequenced to make sure they were accurate.

The techniques of genomic assembly that will be patented by the Venter Institute should be the source of lucrative licensing agreements between Venter's Institute and Universities, other labs, and biotech/ chemical /pharmaceutical companies for decades to come.

Other scientists hastened to state that Venter's group did not create new life:
Eckard Wimmer, professor of molecular biology at New York University, said it was clear from Venter's study that the team had not yet created artificial life.... His fears were echoed by Helen Wallace, a biologist and spokesperson for GeneWatch UK, who said that while Venter's team has managed a technical feat, it is some way from being artificial life. "Venter is not God ... He's a long way from creating life," she told AFP.

Here is Venter's first person account.

More from LA Times and NY Times

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