Scientists announced significant progress Thursday toward creating an artificial organism that one day may have uses ranging from pollution control to clean energy production.
The research at the Institute of Biological Energy Alternatives in Rockville, Md., was detailed in a paper to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and at a news conference by the Energy Department, which funded the three-year research effort.
While the project was based on widely known molecular biology principles, the breakthrough was in the short time — days instead of months or years — it took to construct the virus, said institute founder J. Craig Venter, one of the lead researchers.
The effort last summer by Venter and his colleagues took only two weeks from start to finish and created a viral DNA identical to the known genetic code, the researchers said.
The synthetic virus “had the ability to infect and kill bacterial cells,” the authors wrote in the paper. Even though the experiment involved a simple organism, the researchers suggested their work demonstrated the ability to quickly and accurately synthesize long segments of DNA that can serve as “a stepping stone to manipulating more complex organisms.”
At a news conference, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called the accomplishment “an extraordinary and exciting development” that will speed up “our ability to develop biology-based solutions for some of our most pressing energy and environmental challenges.”
As a result of the scientists’ progress, Abraham said it is now “easier to imagine in the not-too-distance future a colony of specially designed microbes living within the emission-control system of a coal-fired plant, consuming its pollution and its carbon dioxide, or employing microbes to radically reduce water pollution or to reduce the toxic effects of radioactive water.”
But Venter, among the scientists who first produced a map of the complete human genetic code, said much research is needed to produce such a significantly larger artificial organism.
“It’s an interim step. Now we have the enabling technology to take us to these next exciting frontiers,” Venter said. For now, “This is basic science at the most basic level with lots of unknowns.”
Still, he said, “the ability to construct synthetic genomes may lead to extraordinary advances in our ability to engineer microorganisms for many vital energy and environmental purposes.”
Venter said all the research details would be included in the paper to be published in the scientific journal and that at this time, his company has no plans to file for any patents.
In addition to Venter, the lead scientists involved in the research were Hamilton Smith, the institute’s science director who in 1978 shared a Nobel Prize for his genetic research; Clyde A. Hutchison of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Cynthia Pfannkoch of the institute.