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Science - Reuters
Report: Scientists Hope to Create New Form of Life
2 hours, 7 minutes ago
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The pioneer scientist who helped crack the human genome (news - web sites) and a Nobel laureate were expected to announce on Thursday plans to create a new life form in a laboratory dish in an experiment that raises ethical and safety questions, according to a published report.

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 biological weapons.

"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 - web 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.

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