July 2010

The Risks and Rewards of Synthetic Genomics


On May 27, in response to the recent announcement that scientists had created the first microbe with a man-made genome, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee heard expert testimony on the scientific and ethical implications of synthetic biology. During the hearing, representatives sought to understand the emerging technology’s benefits and risks. (Titled "House Panel Considers Risks, Rewards of Synthetic Genomics" in print version.)


Synthetic GenomicsA Cell Reprogrammed

“It is the first cell whose parent is in a computer,” said J. Craig Venter, founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute and one of the first to sequence the human genome.

Starting with only “four bottles of chemicals” and a genetic blueprint encoded into the files of their computers, Venter and his team synthetically created an organism’s genetic code, spelling out a genome with more than 1 million letters of DNA. They even encoded into the organism’s DNA their names, quotations from literature and other identifying markers.

After synthesizing the genome, the scientists replaced the DNA of the bacteria Mycobacterium capricolum with their man-made set of genetic instructions, just as one might install a new operating system on a computer.

The revamped cell took on the characteristics encoded in its new set of genes.

“It’s not life from scratch,” Venter said, “but now we can write new software of life.”

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