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"Artificial Life" Breakthrough Announced by Scientists  

2010-05-22 23:06:17|  分类: Unit10《新世纪研 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first living cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA.

The researchers constructed a bacterium's "genetic software" and transplanted it into a host cell. The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species "dictated" by the synthetic DNA. The advance, published in Science, has been hailed as a scientific landmark, but critics say there are dangers posed by synthetic organisms.

Some also suggest that the potential benefits of the technology have been over-stated. But the researchers hope eventually to design bacterial cells that will produce medicines and fuels and even absorb greenhouse gases.

The team was led by Dr Craig Venter of the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Maryland and California. This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell.

'New industrial revolution'

Dr Venter and his colleagues hope eventually to design and build new bacteria that will perform useful functions. "I think they're going to potentially create a new industrial revolution," he said. "If we can really get cells to do the production that we want, they could help wean us off oil and reverse some of the damage to the environment by capturing carbon dioxide."

But critics say that the potential benefits of synthetic organisms have been overstated. Dr Helen Wallace from Genewatch UK, an organisation that monitors developments in genetic technologies, told BBC News that synthetic bacteria could be dangerous. Dr Wallace accused Dr Venter of playing down the potential drawbacks. "He isn't God," she said, "he's actually being very human; trying to get money invested in his technology and avoid regulation that would restrict its use."

Ethical discussions
Dr Gos Micklem, a geneticist from the University of Cambridge, said that the advance was "undoubtedly a landmark" study. But, he said, "there is already a wealth of simple, cheap, powerful and mature techniques for genetically engineering a range of organisms. Therefore, for the time being, this approach is unlikely to supplant existing methods for genetic engineering".

The ethical discussions surrounding the creation of synthetic or artificial life are set to continue.

Professor Julian Savulescu, from the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, said the potential of this science was "in the far future, but real and significant". "But the risks are also unparalleled," he continued. "We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse. "These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm."

The advance did not pose a danger in the form of bio-terrorism, Dr Venter said.

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