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Racing Ahead of Applicable Law, Scientist Creates ‘Synthetic Cell’

Posted May 20, 2010 5:47 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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In a move that has raised new legal, ethical and public policy concerns, scientists have announced the creation of what they are calling the first synthetic cell.

The bacterium, which is controlled by genetic instructions created by humans and can reproduce itself, is expected to lead to further artificial life forms that can be put to industrial use, according to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.).

At a press conference today, its inventor, J. Craig Venter, described it as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” It was created by replicating an entire bacterial genome in a computerized code and using the synthesized genome to take over a cell, according to the Times.

However, some observers say Venter has not created a new life form but simply created a large piece of DNA. “To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” geneticist David Baltimore of Caltech tells the Times. He describes Venter's work as "a technical tour de force."

The Washington Post describes the invention as a partially synthetic bacterial cell and says artificial life is still a theory rather than a reality. The newspaper goes on to quote Venter as saying "We think these are the first synthetic cells that are self-replicating and whose genetic heritage started in the computer. That changes conceptually how I think about life."

The news is expected to lead to new legal, moral and legislative debate about the extent to which humans should be involved in crafting entirely new organisms. Prior genetic engineering of plants and animals has also been controversial, but was limited to less extensive alteration of the DNA of existing biological life forms.

Intellectual property issues are also foreseeable:

While Venter describes his invention as "very much real cells," he also says he plans to patent them, since "they are pretty clearly human inventions," the Journal reports. Single-gene patents now face legal challenges, but they do not involve synthetic cells.

Anticipating a need for guidelines, Venter says he asked for a bioethical review of the research in the late 1990s, reports Science Daily.

More information is provided in detailed coverage by Science magazine. Various links are included in a Science Now post that also asks for reader questions.

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