January 28, 2008

Artificial Life One Step Closer


by Rohan Parker

Scientists at the Venter Institute in the US have made a significant move towards the creation of artificial life this week, having built a synthetic chromosome containing the genetic code necessary to create a primitive bacterium.

The story, first broken to the scientific community in the Institute’s online journal Science, tells of the team using laboratory chemicals to create a ring of DNA containing all the genes which form the bacteria Mycoplasm genitalium. Researchers have noted that this is the smallest bacteria known to man.

The implication of this discovery is that scientists can now attempt to implant their own synthetic chromosome into a microscopic Mycoplasma bacterium, which will open the path to the creation of self-replicating man-made genes. The team, led by Dr Hamilton Smith (director of the Venter Institute’s Synthetic Biology Group), intends to replace the natural genome found in the bacterium with the one that they have created. The hope is that this procedure, if successful, will spark the bacteria into a form of life that can reproduce itself.

The Institute itself was named for the renowned J. Craig Venter, the scientist who gained recognition in the late 1990s for a laboratory technique which enabled the human genome to be quickly decoded.

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