Famed genome pioneer Craig Venter announcedÂ Thursday, May 20, that his laboratories in Maryland and California had created the first self-replicating synthetic cell — in short, the researchers had created artificial life in a laboratory setting. Â The synthetic-celled organism they created was a bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides. Â The work was the culmination of fifteen years of research by Craig Venter and his research teams, and the results were published online Thursday in the journal Science.
Venter and company, J. Craig Venter Institute, created the synthetic cells by created DNA “from four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information on a computer.” Â They then took the created DNA and placed it within a bacterial host cell that had had its DNA removed. Â The newly created organism lived, then reproduced.
Although the technology has no immediate applications, Craig Venter and those who fund his work, Synthetic Genomics, are thinking long term. Â Synthetic Genomics signed a $600 million deal with Exxon Mobil last year to develop synthetic algal biofuels. Â Although certain natural algae produce hydrocarbons, they do not do so at a rate necessary to meet fuel needs. Â Synthetic Genomics and the J. Craig Venter Institute hope to find a solution where algal organisms can be created that will extract carbon dioxide from the air and produce hydrocarbon fuels.
“We have passed through a critical psychological barrier,” Dr. Craig Venter said in an interview with the Financial Times. “It has changed my own thinking, both scientifically and philosophically, about life, and how it works.”
No doubt the creation of an artificial life form in the laboratory will alter the way many now think of the scientific creation of life, both in an ethical and a philosophical sense. Â Although the idea has been debated for centuries, the actuality, thanks to Craig Venter and his associates, is now upon us.