January 24, 2008

Fully Synthetic Bacterial Chromosome Produced in Lab: First Fully Artificial Life Coming This Year

It looks as if 2008 is going to be the year that we see the first living thing manufactured in a laboratory from nonliving precursors. As it stands right now, an entire genome the size of that of the smallest known bacterium has been assembled from nucleotides. All that's left now is to implant it into a membrane containing a few needed proteins — although don't understand why they haven't done that yet.

Like all Mycoplasma, M. genitalium doesn't have a polypeptide cell wall, just a cell membrane, which in part accounts for its relatively tiny genome. It's a good choice of organism to start with, obviously. Ultimately, we may well see a chromosome capable of building itself a whole prokaryotic cell from precursor materials out of this project.

None of which takes away from what's already been accomplished and stand to be accomplished this year.

Creation of synthetic chromosome a step closer to artificial life

Sabin Russell, Chronicle Medical Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

(01-24) 12:13 PST SAN FRANCISCO -- American scientists have built from scratch a synthetic chromosome containing all the genetic material needed to produce a primitive bacterium - a giant step toward the creation of artificial life.

The feat is described in an online edition of the journal Science released Thursday by researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute, in Rockville, Md...

...a team led by Dr. Hamilton Smith, director of the Venter Institute's Synthetic Biology Group, has manufactured from laboratory chemicals a ring of DNA containing all the genes of Mycoplasma genitalium - the tiniest bacteria ever found.

That means the team is tantalizingly close to slipping these artificial genes into the microscopic skin of one of these bugs, and if their plans work, sparking self-replicating life with a set of genes made by machines.

"If we'd done that already, we'd be letting people know. That's not the kind of secret you keep," said Venter, by telephone from Davos, Switzerland. "But I am virtually certain it will happen this year..."

What is different here is that the bacterial genome Venter's lab has fabricated is about 20 times larger than the longest viral genome ever made by machines... a computer printout of the Mycoplasma chromosome fills 147 single-spaced pages of paper. The actual synthetic chromosome, Venter said, is "the largest molecule ever built by humans, by a large margin."

Once the laboratory produces living, replicating bacteria using this artificial chromosome, Venter scientists plan to strip away genes systematically, to find how few are truly necessary to sustain life. It is largely an academic exercise, but in the process the scientists hope to refine the tools for building living organisms from this fundamental base, and custom-design them to perform certain tasks - such as manufacturing fuel...
The first living cells manufactured from scratch. 2008 is shaping up to be a momentous year in many ways.

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