Researchers create first 'synthetic life'

A group of researchers, including three Indian-Americans, led by genome pioneer J Craig Venter have developed the first bacteria cell controlled by a synthetic genome.

"This is the first synthetic cell that's been made," Venter said, as the discovery was unveiled.

"We call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesiser, starting with information in a computer," he said.

The thee Indian-American scientists are Sanjay Vashee, Radha Krishnakumar, and Prashanth P Parmar, who contributed in the pioneering research that created synthetic cell which will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels.

The breakthrough - USD 40 million and more than a decade in the making - is a critical milestone in the burgeoning field of synthetic genomics.

Dr Venter, at a news conference, described the converted cell as "the first self-replicating species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer."

"This is a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance," he said, suggesting that the "synthetic cell" raised new questions about the nature of life.

This is "a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology," said Mark Bedau, a philosopher at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and editor of 'Artificial Life'.

"It represents an important technical milestone in the new field of synthetic genomics," said yeast biologist Jef Boeke of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

The synthetic genome created by Venter's team is almost identical to that of a natural bacterium.

Despite this success, creating heavily customised genomes, such as ones that make fuels or pharmaceuticals, and getting them to "boot" up the same way in a cell is not yet a reality.

"There are great challenges ahead before genetic engineers can mix, match, and fully design an organism's genome from scratch," notes Paul Keim, a molecular geneticist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

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