Kick Start to Life
LATER THIS YEAR, it’s quite possible that an entirely new life-form will come into existence. And it will be man-made. Synthetic Genomics was launched last June in Rockville, Md., with $31 million from investors-and is run by J. Craig Venter, the controversial scientist who sped the mapping of the human genome. It has already created the first synthesized chromosome, one long strand of DNA that will be planted into the cell of a simple bacteria, kick-starting it to life.Other companies, like DuPont,are similarly racing to create simple but new life-forms.
Syntheticbiology.org, an online forum hosted by researchers involved in the new technology, states that it is “fundamentally an engineering application of biological science.” The researchers foresee its application in the creation of microbes that have a single purpose, noting that fully synthesized organisms are more easily manipulated.
Venter’s company,for example, wants its progeny to produce clean fuels, like ethanol and hydrogen. Some pundits have already nicknamed them-what else?-frankenfuels. New drugs and ways to clean up industrial spills are other potential applications. Yet synthetic biology raises ethical questions, as well as issues of safety, security, and patent rights. The notion of tailor-made bioweapons in the hands of terrorists is a sobering thought, indeed. Syntheticbiology.org acknowledges the risks but says the potential benefits justify continued ethical research and development.-TG
Copyright AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR ENGINEERING EDUCATION Mar 2008
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