Work on the world’s first human-made species is well under way at a research complex in Rockville, Md., and scientists in Canada have been quietly conducting experiments to help bring such a creature to life.
Robert Holt, head of sequencing for the Genome Science Centre at the University of British Columbia, is leading efforts at his Vancouver lab to play a key role in the production of the first synthetic life form — a microbe made from scratch.
The project is being spearheaded by U.S. scientist Craig Venter, who gained fame in his former job as head of Celera Genomics, which completed a privately-owned map of the human genome in 2000.
Dr. Venter, 59, has since shifted his focus from determining the chemical sequences that encode life to trying to design and build it: “We’re going from reading to writing the genetic code,” he said in an interview.
The work is an extreme example of a burgeoning new field in science known as synthetic biology. It relies on advances in computer technology that permit the easy assembly of the chemical bits, known as nucleotides, that make up DNA.
Several scientific groups are trying to make genes that do not exist in nature, in hopes of constructing microbes that perform useful tasks, such as producing industrial chemicals, clean energy or drugs. Dr. Venter and his colleagues are pushing the technology to its limits by trying to put together an entirely synthetic genome.
“We have these genetic codes that we have been determining, so part of the proof [that they encode an organism] is reproducing the chromosome and seeing if it produces the same result,” he said.
The Venter team is starting small, working to construct a simpler version of the bacteria known as Mycoplasma genitalium, a common resident of the human reproductive tract. They hope to determine the minimum number of genes required to breathe life into an organism.
M. genitalium is a single-cell bacterium with just one chromosome and 517 genes. But the Venter team is paring the recipe down and believes their version will be able to survive with as few as 250 to 400 genes — each of which they are making themselves, one chemical piece at a time.