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Scientists Create Synthetic Organisms
To Create More Dangerous Vaccines


Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first living cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA for the sole purpose of creating fuels and vaccines.

The researchers constructed a bacterium's "genetic software" and transplanted it into a host cell.

The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species "dictated" by the synthetic DNA.

The advance, published in Science, has been hailed as a scientific landmark, but critics say there are dangers posed by synthetic organisms.

Some also suggest that the potential benefits of the technology have been over-stated.

But the researchers hope eventually to design bacterial cells that will produce vaccines and fuels.

The team was led by Dr Craig Venter of the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Maryland and California.

He and his colleagues had previously made a synthetic bacterial genome, and transplanted the genome of one bacterium into another.

Now, the scientists have put both methods together, to create what they call a "synthetic cell", although only its genome is truly synthetic.

Dr Venter likened the advance to making new software for the cell.

The researchers copied an existing bacterial genome. They sequenced its genetic code and then used "synthesis machines" to chemically construct a copy.

Dr Venter told BBC News: "We've now been able to take our synthetic chromosome and transplant it into a recipient cell - a different organism.

"As soon as this new software goes into the cell, the cell reads [it] and converts into the species specified in that genetic code."

The new bacteria replicated over a billion times, producing copies that contained and were controlled by the constructed, synthetic DNA.

"This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell," said Dr Venter.

Dr Venter and his colleagues are already collaborating with pharmaceutical and fuel companies to design and develop chromosomes for bacteria that would produce fuels and new vaccines.

But critics say that the potential benefits of synthetic organisms have been overstated.

Dr Helen Wallace from Genewatch UK, an organisation that monitors developments in genetic technologies, told BBC News that synthetic bacteria could be dangerous.

"If you release new organisms into the environment, you can do more harm than good," she said.

"By releasing them into areas of pollution, [with the aim of cleaning it up], you're actually releasing a new kind of pollution.

"We don't know how these organisms will behave in the environment."

Dr Wallace accused Dr Venter of playing down the potential drawbacks.

"He isn't God," she said, "he's actually being very human; trying to get money invested in his technology and avoid regulation that would restrict its use."

But Dr Venter said that he was "driving the discussions" about the regulations governing this relatively new scientific field and about the ethical implications of the work.

Ethical discussions

The ethical discussions surrounding the creation of synthetic or artificial life are set to continue.

Professor Julian Savulescu, from the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, said "... the risks are also unparalleled." He continued, "we need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse.

"These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm."

The advance did not pose a danger in the form of bio-terrorism, Dr Venter said.

"The flu vaccine you'll get next year could be developed by these processes," he added.



May 24, 2010

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