Synthetic Life

Lisa: Genome guru Craig Venter believes the creation of the worlds first synthetic organism is close.  The goal is to chemically synthesize a DNA chromosome, a minimal genome tailored for some specific purpose, for example creating a cell tweaked to maximise the conversion of cellulose to fermentable sugar for biofuel production.  His team has already succeeded in the first “genome transplant”, purifying DNA from one microbe and inserting it into another species.

The ability to tailor make organisms also brings with it threats such as bioterrorism.  According to Science (Vol. 316. p. 1682)  biotech companies in the DNA synthesis industry have already had to deal with (and rejected) requests for synthesis of parts of the smallpox virus or for genes to enhance the toxicity of edible plants.  So far the industry has pushed for self-regulation.  Under this framework companies would have to screen requests using industry approved software to identify potentially dangerous sequences, and report any suspect requests to the government.  So far the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has agreed to industry self-regulation, infuriating watch dog groups such as ETC who argue that small groups of scientists and entrepreneurs with a vested interest should control the regulatory frameworks.

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