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After 15 years of research and tens of millions of dollars in investment, the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) team in Maryland and California has succeeded in developing the first synthetic living organism.

The researchers previously made a synthetic bacterial genome (they copied an existing bacterial genome, sequenced its genetic code and then used “synthesis machines” to chemically construct a copy), and transplanted the genome of one bacterium into another natural bacteria (so it means that no new living creature was created; instead, they used old microplasma cells into which they inserted DNA they artificially designed). So basically they built something that already exists, but from scratch, chemically. 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 (so they guy named his institute after himself – that’s a little scary).

As science historian George Dyson points out, “from the point of view of technology, a code generated within a digital computer is now self-replicating as the genome of a line of living cells. From the point of view of biology, a code generated by a living organism has been translated into a digital representation for replication, editing, and transmission to other cells.”

The advance, published in Science, has been hailed as a scientific landmark. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet. It could be an industrial revolution, too.

Dr Venter and his colleagues hope eventually to design and build new bacteria that will perform useful functions. Dr Venter and his colleagues are already collaborating with pharmaceutical and fuel companies to design and develop chromosomes for bacteria that would produce useful fuels and new vaccines. 

But critics say that the potential benefits of synthetic organisms have been overstated (well, this sort of thing always ends well in the movies, doesn’t it? Hmm).

I’m excited nonetheless, this is awesome stuff. To be continued…

FAQ about the research here. Ethical and societal implications fact sheet here.  

Source: BBC News and Boing Boing.

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