Thursday, May 20, 2010

Synthetic cell: A step closer to 'recipe for life'

The creation of the first self-replicating, synthetic cell by the J. Craig Venter Institute is being hailed as a milestone in the history of biology and biotechnology. In the journal Science, the researchers described the steps to make a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome.

“It’s marvelous what they’ve done,” says Emory chemistry chair David Lynn. “They’ve taken a major step in defining a minimal set of chemical instructions for what we call living. This understanding, and the underlying technology, will certainly be extended and amplified into a synthetic biology. Their accomplishment also moves us that critical step closer to the definition of and a recipe for life. And that is profound.”

Watch the video, above, of Lynn explaining the discovery on CNN.

Lynn, professor of biomolecular chemistry, is working to understand supramolecular self-assembly, and how life may have originated on pre-biotic Earth.

“What Craig Venter and his team have done is taken the genome out of one organism and put it into another,” Lynn says. “Our group is coming at it from the opposite direction, of emergent life forms. Both approaches are trying to define the minimal chemical composition for life.”

Excitement over Venter's discovery should be tempered by caution, says Paul Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics. "Like any great scientific innovation, this has enormous promise and enormous peril," Wolpe said on ABC World News Tonight. "This may allow us to make more virulent viruses. This could unleash a bacterium on the world that has properties we didn't expect that could cause great disease and ecological damage."

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