BUILDING LIFE: Venter's Quest to Create Synthetic Life-Form in Lab ; US Department of Energy Grants Controversial Scientist $3M to Try to Answer the Ultimate Question: What Is Life?
Steve Connor Science Editor, The Independent (London, England)
CRAIG VENTER'S name is never far from controversy, and now he has embarked on what could be his most controversial project yet - a plan to build a synthetic life form in a laboratory dish.
The former Vietnam veteran and US government scientist-turned- biotech entrepreneur said yesterday that he would set up a team of dedicated researchers to answer the ultimate question: what is life?
Dr Venter has been given $3m (pounds 2m) from the US Department of Energy to begin the first stage of a project to synthesise the minimal amount of DNA needed to generate the spark of life and to keep the flame alive in a test tube.
The plan is to insert a man-made genome into the empty shell of a dead, single-celled micro-organism to see whether a creature can be built that will grow, eat and reproduce just like those found in nature - except with potentially valuable differences.
Dr Venter said the project could result in new breeds of microbes that can be used to generate alternative sources of energy by, for instance, producing hydrogen for fuel. Others could be engineered to soak up carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere.
Hamilton Smith, a Nobel Laureate formerly of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, will direct the research at Dr Venter's Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) in Washington DC.
Dr Venter said: "IBEA was founded with the goal of exploring biological mechanisms for dealing with carbon sequestration and to study the creation of other potential energy sources such as hydrogen."
The project outlined yesterday has its roots in a scheme first publicised in 1999 when Dr Venter and Dr Smith said that they intended to study the minimal amount of genes necessary for life.
Dr Smith, who then worked at Dr Venter's Institute for Genomic Research, said at the time: "Defining the minimal genome is a very fundamental problem, and no one else seems to be approaching it experimentally."
His calculations suggested that the minimum number of genes needed to sustain a single-celled microbe would be somewhere between 256 and 350 - far fewer than the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 genes in the human genome.
About a hundred of these minimal genes had unknown functions, undermining the prevailing view that the fundamental mechanisms of a microbe's biochemistry are understood.
The latest research will undoubtedly concentrate on a microbe with a tiny genome. Mycoplasma genitalium, which lives in the human reproductive tract, consists of just 517 genes.
Dr Venter was the first to sequence M. genitalium's genome and it is a relatively straightforward task to delete individual genes to see if they are vital for the organism's survival. …