Life Form Created With Man-Made DNA Offers Benefits, Dangers

J. Craig Venter
J. Craig Venter, CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc., speaks in Santa Barbara, California. Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

The first life form created entirely with man-made DNA opens the door to manufacturing new drugs and fuels, while raising the possibility that mail-order germs may one-day be available for bioterrorists.

Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, reported today in the journal Science that for the first time, they made a copy of a bacterium’s entire genome and then transplanted it into a related organism, where it functioned normally.

The culmination of 15 years of effort, the work provides a blueprint for making organisms that could be used to make better fuels, drugs, vaccines and sources of food, the institute’s researchers said in a statement. It also suggests that companies that can manufacture DNA should stay on guard, said James Collins, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-supported bioengineer at Boston University, in a telephone interview.

“They sent out chunks of the genetic code to companies and asked them each to synthesize parts of it,” Collins said. “You don’t want bad guys to order 10 parts of a nasty virus from 10 different groups and then put them together.”

Even so, lawmakers and the public can’t afford to turn away from this rapidly evolving technology, which holds both peril and promise, said Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, in a commentary written for today.

“The regulatory, social and legal challenges can be solved,” he said in the commentary. “It will take both national and international commitments to do so, but the risk of inaction is greater than the risks of moving forward given the tremendous benefits this technology promises.”

$40 Million Cost

The decade and a half effort to make the synthetic cell cost about $40 million, about $30 million of which was provided by Synthetic Genomics Inc., said J. Craig Venter, the Rockville-based company’s chief executive officer, in a telephone call with reporters. The U.S. Department of Energy also provided some funds, he said.

Venter is one of the scientists who developed fast DNA-decoding techniques that helped bring the Human Genome Project to an early conclusion 10 years ago. His team of scientists painstakingly copied the genome of the bacterium, called a Mycoplasma, into a computer and then made or ordered pieces, which they then had to biochemically stitch together into a working sequence.

DNA is the code that tells cells when and how to make proteins, the building blocks of all life forms. Venter and his colleagues are researching ways to command cells to make substances such as efficient biofuels. The creation of a cell whose genome is completely under human control is a crucial step towards achieving those ends, the research group said.

Writing Genetic Code

“If scientists can write genetic code then it becomes possible to optimize certain functions in organisms that would be beneficial for society,” they said in a statement.

While Collins called the work a major advance and a “methodological tour de force,” he said it doesn’t represent the creation of a fully synthetic life form. Venter essentially transplanted a synthetic genome into a related organism, and found the genes functioned normally there.

“Imagine that bioengineers could program genes to grow into a fully functioning heart,” Collins said. “If you transplanted that into someone, the recovered patient wouldn’t be a synthetic individual, just a very lucky person.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE