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back to article Genetics boffins on the verge of artificial bacteria

Genetics entrepreneur Craig Venter claims his team is on the verge of creating the first artificial lifeform. In an interview with The Guardian this weekend, Venter said his company, Synthetic Genomics, has completed an artificial chromosome that will carry all necessary genes for a viable bacterium. It's planned that the DNA …

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Paris Hilton

It must be said.

I for one, welcome our new bacterial overlords.

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Ru
Silver badge

Good old bioethics experts

Its great that they're concerned, and after all it is kinda what they're there for. But They should be pretty ashamed that the only good reason they have for being concerned is that it might have terrorist applications.

Terrorists of any kind are incredibly unlikely to be able to create their own super plagues using this method. They'd have more luck assembling, say, some smallpox virus... but even this requires significant amounts of expertise and equipment. It is about as likely as a terrorist nuclear weapons program.

The only people who can do this sort of thing are governments, and when they do it, it is *warfare* then, surely? Oh no, that sort of nation is a 'terrorist state'.

It is a pretty sorry state of affairs when people have to tick the terrorist box just to get noticed. Won't somebody, please, think of the terrorists?

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Gold badge
Joke

Cyborg?

"The resulting organism will only be part synthetic..."

So, a sort of bacterial cyborg then? A bit like a monocellular Arnold Schwartzenegger?

Still, being a single-celled organism and one of the lowest forms of life it's cut out for a future career in politics and should be a shoo-in for the White House in a few years time.

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Anonymous Coward

Patenting Genes

This reminds me of that book 'Next' by Michael Crichton. Gene patenting and so forth. How patentable are these things?

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Anonymous Coward

Capn. Bacterium?

I'm always a bit skeptical when reading news from other people's fields. Is this guy the Biotech world's equivalent of Captain Cyborg, or is this really a breakthrough?

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Joke

Yes, terrorists

I'm sure terrorists will be doing this, making artificial super-killer diseases. It's not hard.

In other news, Osama Bin Laden is planning to build a nuclear bomb out of pinball machine parts and the radioactive material found in smoke detectors.

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It's all coming up roses...

So "Venter is betting on artificial organisms delivering a bonanza for medicine, renewable energy, and anti-climate change efforts"? Break out the champagne! It's the end of history! *cue naff muzak* It is the dawning of the age of Aquarius...

So Venter wouldn't dream of making billions for him and his investors by selling this kind of tech to, say, Pentagon contractors? As if! He has a heart of gold! And there is no way that this could all go horribly wrong by manufactured organisms escaping into the wild and causing an ecological catastrophe. We all know how secure commercial and govt. biotech sites are after all *coughpurbrightcough*

And even if they did escape these bugs will have had their DNA coded so well that they couldn't possibly cause any problems. Right? I mean how hard can it be to code the DNA of an original organism so that it behaves in a predictable fashion in every situation? No more difficult than coding an OS like, say, Windoze - another triumph of monopoly capitalism - and we all know that that never goes wrong in the wild but only in the sad deluded imaginations of Linux lunatics...

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Dead Vulture

"Grey goo" in Second Life transfers to the real world?

Funny you should mention Second Life: my thoughts turn to what happened when self-replicating scripted objects appeared in the virtual world. The place was littered with a "grey goo" that took Linden Labs a significan effort to clear up.

The argument comes up that is frequently brought into the debate about the introduction of anything articficial, or not native... GM crops, the American grey squirrel and so on. If an artificial bacteria designed to eat dangerous waste products and produce useful energy plus harmless byproduct goes rogue, we could see a mass of grey goo taking over the entire planet.

However, the benefits may outway these drawbacks.

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Bronze badge

There are bioethics experts?

Where are these bioethics experts? I keep seeing their views cited, but I don't see the experts themselves. The closest I see are hoards of self-declared bioethics experts on blogs, lacking regulation or certification and of widely varying level of biological knowledge from the professional gene-tinkerer to the complete crackpot. Even the more credible experts rarely agree with each other over the most basic of issues.

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(Written by Reg staff)

@Suricou Raven

Hi,

The main one in the UK is Genewatch. They're part of a global coalition which laid its cards on the table last year. There's a story I wrote at the time (it's in the Related Stories section), and Genewatch's press release is here: http://www.genewatch.org/article.shtml?als[cid]=492860&als[itemid]=537746

Cheers,

Chris Williams

El Reg

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Dan

As a sceptical agnostic..

..I have to ask whether he's in danger of getting sued by God on grounds of prior art, or whatever lawyers call it?

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Dead Vulture

Our Dark Future Foretold Here...

<http://www.head-space.com/virus/frameset.html>

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Ahem

Just to be clear; they haven't 'made' anything, all they've done is copy something that already existed (admittedly, the lab technique is difficult) and change it. If I photocopy the Mona Lisa and give her glasses and a moustache with a marker pen, have I 'made' a great masterpiece?

In order to be able to claim they made any kind of life, they'd have to meet the conditions that used to be imposed for making functionally-equivalent BIOS chips without getting sued i.e. build it from scratch *never having seen the original code*. I'd submit this is something we'll never see done in a lab.

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Missed the boat. Again.

Once more, the various ethicists are left standing dockside as the technology boat sails over the horizon. One might think that after so many years of playing 'catch up,' ethicists would start talking *seriously* about the ethics of various technologies *before* they become viable? But no - the scientists have stolen another march whilst the ethicists are busy still debating sealing wax.

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Thumb Down

evil!

such things are the purest evil, interfering with the very stuff of life itself, perverting God's handiwork. Genetic science is unadulterated wickedness! It will be used to create *perfect* humans, us natural borns will be relegated to the fringes and allowed to die out, if we're not killed first by killer-droids or the genetic police.

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Dead Vulture

Like letting out a rogue sheep in a field of wolves.

I've been following this a bit. This is a breakthrough, however, it isn't the genuine article everyone in the field is looking for. Venter has taken an existing bactrium, selected for it's extremely small geneome, and subtracted out genes, a few at a time. The idea is to take out every gene that isn't critical to survival in order to create the minimum set of genes necessary for life. He isn't creating anything new per se, just degenerating an already harmless bacteria. The end result will be a bacteria just barely clinging to life, with none of the extra genes that might possibly be used for defense against other organisms, or offense in infectious processes. If an actual weapon were created out of this project, then that would be a much larger, unexpected breakthrough.

The breakthrough of Venter's work is that we will be able to build a comprehensive model of this organism understanding every aspect of every gene and protein and its necessity for life. It will be an extremely valuable teaching tool. It will also be valuable for research in that we can add new genes to it and find out precisely how they function with confidence that there are no unknown mechanisms going on.

As for the terrorists? They'd be more productive throwing rocks at the White House (or Buckingham Palace?).

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Jobs Horns

Chaos rules over Order

I can hardly wait till the seemingly harmless "bacteria" meets with a little unplanned Chaos and we have "Resident Evil" or "28 Days" for real.

When you tinker with this kind of stuff, you had damned well better be doing it in a biological hazard rated facility. Genetic Mutation is a fact of life and you cannot ever avoid it, especially when you are deliberately trying to make it happen.

It is one thing to use and breed existing bacteria for the properties they already have and quite another to artificially change them to suit your needs.

Can you say Andromeda Strain????

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@Capn. Bacterium?

He may not be biotechnology's Capt. Cyborg but he is certainly untrustworthy and a remarkable egotist.

When his firm Celera was involved (indeed a very significant part of) the human genome sequencing project, it was stated that the DNA they were using came from a pool of 5 volunteers. Only a few years later did Craig admit that it was mostly his own.

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@Anonymous Coward

"with none of the extra genes that might possibly be used for defense against other organisms, or offense in infectious processes"

Haven't followed this and know nothing about genetics, but doesn't that assume one already knows the purpose/effect of each gene (either alone or in combination)?

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J
Jobs Horns

Grey goo...

Hey, this icon kinda looks like a beardless Venter, come to think of it...

"we could see a mass of grey goo taking over the entire planet"

No, we probably could not, actually. At least as far as basic science/logic is involved. I don't remember who started this "grey goo" craze (when writing about nanotech, I think), but I'm pretty sure Bill Joy was repeating this drivel in an essay condemning genetic engineering. To the grey goo apologists, "one" word: first law of thermodynamics. How can something reproduce so much as to take up all the resources and *cover* everything (thickly enough to be grey, by the way), unless the resources are extremely abundant -- in which case, it's not on THIS planet, where organisms have to fight for everything with each other. Now, the "grey goo" notion is even more ridiculous when applied to some hypothetical, artificial nanotech device.

And as far as goos go, the entire planet is ALREADY covered in it. It's been around for some billions of years and it's called bacteria. Hardly menacing now, innit?

"Even the more credible experts rarely agree with each other over the most basic of issues"

Of course, otherwise it wouldn't be "ethics", would it? ;-)

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Silver badge

And, 28 days later in unrelated news,

We have suddenly lost contact with the UK. No news agencies are answering the phone, the Prime Minister is incommunicado and the Queen has not been answering any calls from diplomatic channels.

We are at a loss to explain what has happened. US spy satellites gather some sporadic activity, and some cities are burning, but it's as if there is no intelligence left.

NATO is discussing the possibility of sending in a low-altitude survey craft, but somehow the various parties have not reached an agreement yet.

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There is no such word as if

OK, so we have a scooped out bacterium with only the minimal genes for survival, like a blank sheet? so pump in some other genes from somewhere else and you'll have something new, this is going to happen.

Some of the new things will be bad for us, there's good bugs and bad bugs, some we can tollerate and some we can't, this will also happen.

Labs have leaks, this has happened before, it will happen again.

There is no question that [we] will create something bad that will escape into the wild, this will happen over and over again.

When this happens we will either survive it or not, and this assumes that this is an accident and this technology is not funded or purchased by people with less than altruistic intentions.

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Related story

Heard on NPR recently about a scientist trying to increase the lifespan of certain worms via genetic manipulation. The scary part was when they said they were making changes in the worm's genome, *at random*, and then looking for the effect. That they seem to have had some success in achieving their goal of longer living worms just made it all the scarier.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1258582

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