Synthetic cell sparks debate among James Martin School scholars

21 May 2010

Dr Craig Venter, American biologist and member of the James Martin 21st Century School’s Advisory Council, has created the world’s first synthetic life form, by successfully transplanting synthetic DNA into a bacterium as a host cell.

The cell, which contains more than a million DNA base pairs, or genetic letters (there are six billion pairs in human DNA), was created by writing genetic code on a computer, then combining a cocktail of chemicals to create a chromosome. Once the chromosome was inserted into the host cell, and then “booted up”, it immediately began making proteins as prescribed by the new DNA and began dividing and replicating by the millions.

Venter said this first synthetic cell is the first - and early - step in designing artificial life forms that could one day produce biological fuels, vaccines and even foods.

The scientific breakthrough has sparked debate and commentary among bioethicists, in particular. Prof Julian Savulescu, Director of the Programme on Ethics of the New Biosciences, has already appeared on several news programmes, telling BBC News online that the potential of this science is "in the far future, but real and significant: dealing with pollution, new energy sources, new forms of communication". But he also strongly cautions about the potential risks, calling for new standards of safety evaluation in science.

Debate continues on various blogs related to the School.

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