Scientists create synthetic cell

21 May 2010

Scientists at US genomics pioneer Craig Venter’s laboratories in California and Maryland in the US have turned inanimate chemicals into a living organism.

The creation of the world’s first “synthetic cells” is a project that took 15 years to complete. The cells are bacteria called Mycoplasma mycoides .

“We have passed through a critical psychological barrier,” Venter told the Financial Times. “It has changed my own thinking, both scientifically and philosophically, about life and how it works.”

Beginning with information on a computer, four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesiser were used to construct the bacteria’s genes, Venter said, and the research has been deemed a landmark by many independent scientists and philosophers.

The research has been published online by the journal Science.

The synthetic bacteria, which behaved like natural bacteria, have 14 “watermark sequences” attached to their genome – inert stretches of DNA added to distinguish them from their natural counterparts.

M mycoides was chosen as a simple microbe with which to prove the technology. It has no immediate application.

But scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics, the company funding their research, are interested in designing algae that can capture carbon dioxide from the air and produce hydrocarbon fuels.