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Creation of genes in lab raises hopes, concerns
San Francisco Chronicle


May 26, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO - Scientists announced last Thursday that for the first time they have created a complete set of synthetic genes and implanted them into living bacteria that thrive -- an achievement that could ultimately lead to the creation of new synthetic biofuels and many other practical advances.

The bacteria in the experiments reproduce naturally but behave exactly the way their newly constructed genes direct, said noted human genome biologist J. Craig Venter, who has led a team of 23 scientists on the project for more than a decade.

Their success was reported Thursday in the online journal Science Express, and heralded by the scientists as a major step toward the creation of artificial organisms that might serve as biofuels, speed up vaccine production or clean up toxic spills.

Although the advance is far from creating "life in a test tube," it was a singular achievement in making and assembling the chemical components of genes that functioned inside living cells exactly the way natural genes do.

Reaction to the report was a mixture of praise and alarm.

David Magnus, director of the Center for Bioethics and professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medical Center, acknowledged that in the "very distant future," the work could yield substantial practical benefits and even now opens up "dramatic new vistas in genetic engineering."

But there are also grave risks for the distant future, he said.

"This kind of biology makes it possible, in the wrong hands, to create deadly pathogens, and in the future it will call for strong regulations," said Magnus, who was a member of a panel that Venter created more than 10 years ago to oversee his artificial gene work and advise him on any ethical issues that might arise.

The Venter team's achievement recalls the days when scientists first began recombining the genes of natural organisms and foresaw the possibility that genetic engineering might unintentionally yield dangerously infectious microbes.

Under the leadership of Stanford geneticist Paul Berg, the scientists involved in those experiments met at the Asilomar conference center near Monterey in 1975 and called for regulating the work. The National Institutes of Health promptly created a regulatory agency to supervise the early genetic engineering efforts. The agency still oversees gene therapy research.

Genetic engineering is now commonplace, and a huge drug industry based on the science has resulted.

Venter became famous in 2003 when, in a race with the government-sponsored Human Genome Project, he and his colleagues independently sequenced the entire human genome -- consisting of 3 billion units of DNA called "base pairs."

Venter's team worked out of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. In the report, which appears in the print journal Science today, the scientists detailed how their artificial genome containing 1.8 million DNA units -- the basis of about 1,000 genes -- was created and then inserted into parasitic bacteria called Mycoplasma mycoides.

Those organisms with their new artificial genes reproduced normally and produced only the proteins that their new genes instructed them to make, the Venter team said.

"This is an important step, we think, both scientifically and philosophically," Venter said in an interview with Science. "It's certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works."

He also called the successful creation of an artificial genome "a very powerful tool for trying to design what we want biology to do" -- a goal that many scientists in the field known as "synthetic biology" are also seeking.

In addition to his research institute, Venter has founded a company called Synthetic Genomics, which declares in a corporate statement: "At Synthetic Genomics Inc. we are creating genomic-driven commercial solutions to revolutionize many industries. We have started by focusing on energy."

The company has announced it is working with Exxon on a $600 million venture to produce biofuels from algae modified with artificial genes, and expects to enter other commercial ventures.


E-mail reporter David Perlman at dperlman(at)


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