Gene scientists Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith hope to create a
single-celled, partially man-made organism with the minimum number
of genes necessary to sustain life in a project funded by a $3
million grant from the U.S. Energy Department, The Washington Post
reported in its Thursday editions.
If the experiment works, the newspaper said, the microscopic
man-made cell would begin feeding and dividing to create a
population of cells unlike any previously known to exist.
The idea is to eventually create a computer model of every aspect
of the biology of a new organism. Because all living cells are based
on the same chemistry, that could shed light on all of biology. "We
are wondering if we can come up with a molecular definition of
life," Venter told the Post.
Smith and Venter told the Post the lab-dish cells would be
rendered incapable of infecting humans, strictly confined and
designed to die if they escaped into the environment.
The Post said the scientists acknowledged the project could lay
the groundwork for creating new biological weapons and that they
have to be selective about publishing technical details.
Scientists don't usually announce their experiments in advance,
but Venter said he felt this one needed to be brought to the
attention of policymakers in Washington since it could create a new
set of tools that terrorists or hostile states might exploit to make
"We'll have a debate on what should be published and what
shouldn't," Venter said. "We may not disclose all the details that
would teach somebody else how to do this."
Smith won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
Venter became known internationally after he backed a new
approach to sequencing genomes known as all-genome shotgun
sequencing. The method speeds up the painstaking process of mapping
an organism's collection of DNA by blasting it all apart and then
fitting it back together.
Venter and Smith said they will delete a gene that gives M.
genitalium the ability to adhere to human cells, as well as another
200 genes that confer upon the organism the ability to survive in a
hostile environment. The end result will be a delicate creature, at
home only in the warm nutrient bath of a laboratory dish.
Venter left the top position in January at the genome company he
helped found, Celera Genomics (news
sites) Group, as the company changed its business model to
concentrate more on developing drugs.
Venter announced in August he was back in business at The
Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, as well as
two groups set up with Venter cash -- the Institute for Biological
Energy Alternatives and The Center for the Advancement of Genomics.