Advance in synthetic genomics: microbial 'species transplant'

2 July 2007

A team of scientists led by Dr Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in the US have published work reporting the transplant of a bacterial genome from one species to another [Lartigue C et al. (2007) Science online DOI: 10.1126/science.1144622 (abstract)], effectively changing the second bacterium into a copy of the first. This is reported as being “a step toward propagation of synthetic genomes”, and certainly represents a proof of principle demonstration, but in practical terms it seems unclear how far the work can be translated into other species. It is not certain that the process can be easily replicated even using the same species.

Critics are opposed to experiments aimed at the artificial creation of life; ethical concerns include fears that this sort of research could easily be applied in the creation of tools for bioterrorism. Craig Venter says that their hope is to create ‘designer’ microbes for useful purposes such as the production of biofuels. The JCVI states that they remain “concerned with the societal implications of their work and the field of synthetic genomics generally” and say that a report into the risks, benefits and possible safeguards against abuse of synthetic genomics will be released in summer 2007 (see press release).

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