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Scientists create gene map for synthetic life

Researchers have assembled the entire genome of a living organism — a bacterium — in what they hope is an important step to creating artificial life.
Image: synthetic Mycoplasma genitalium bacteria
This photo from the J.Craig Venter Institute shows a single molecule from the synthetic Mycoplasma genitalium bacteria over a period of 0.6 seconds. U.S. scientists have taken a major step toward creating the first-ever artificial life form by synthetically reproducing the DNA of a bacteria.J. Craig Venter Institute via AP
/ Source: Reuters

Researchers have assembled the entire genome of a living organism — a bacterium — in what they hope is an important step to creating artificial life.

The bug, Mycoplasma genitalium, has the smallest known genome of any truly living organism, with 485 working genes. Viruses are smaller, but they are not considered completely alive as they cannot replicate by themselves.

Bacteria can and do, and the team at the non-profit J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland has been working for years to try to build M. genitalium from scratch.

"We consider this the second in significant steps of a three-step process in our attempts to make the first synthetic organism," Craig Venter, founder of the institute, told a telephone briefing.

"This entire process started with four bottles of chemicals."

M. genitalium has a fairly simple structure — all its DNA is carried on a single chromosome. Chromosomes are the structures that carry genetic material, and the entire code is called the genome. Other genetic material called RNA is needed to convert this gene map into something a cell can use to function.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers said they used first E. coli bacteria and then yeast cells to copy pieces of DNA and assemble them into an artificial chromosome.

Next, the researchers say, they want to insert this artificial chromosome into a cell and see if they can make their synthetic chromosome "boot up" the cell.

They started by chemically making DNA fragments in the lab. Their first step was to make the four building blocks of DNA — adenine, guanine, cytosine and thiamine or the A, G, C and T that make up the genetic code.

For M. genitalium, which can cause a sexually transmitted infection in men and women, these four letters repeat in pairs 580,000 times.

It is not possible to build one long strand of DNA because it is too brittle, so the sequence was broken down into pieces called cassettes. Some work was outsourced to a lab that specializes in making circular DNA fragments called plasmids.

Venter said the chromosome had been disabled so that it could not live outside the lab and so that it could not take over some other organism by mistake. The plan also underwent ethical review by a panel at the University of Pennsylvania.

Venter's hope is to eventually make synthetic microorganisms that could be used for producing biofuels, cleaning up toxic waste or pulling excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

In June 2007, the team announced that they had managed to change one species of bacteria called Mycoplasma capricolum into another, Mycoplasma mycoides, by replacing the genome of one with the genome of another.

Venter said he would like to use a synthetic chromosome in a similar way, to trick one organism into acting like another.

Another key question — what is the minimum number of genes needed for life? Venter hopes to be able to make a streamlined, stripped-down organism from scratch.

"We have 100 genes or so that we know we can't knock out without killing the cell that are of unknown structure," he told the briefing — meaning his team still has a way to go in understanding which genes are absolutely necessary for life.