Venter Lauds Synthetic Cell But Skeptics Abound

Craig Venter, the brash genome pioneer and energetic entrepreneur, announced at a press conference today that he and fellow researchers had created a synthetic cell, "by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell," according to a story in The New York Times. The piece says Venter hailed his results as a "landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels."

Reporter Nicholas Wade explains:

Dr. Venter’s aim is to achieve total control over a bacterium’s genome, first by synthesizing its DNA in a laboratory and then by designing a new genome stripped of many natural functions and equipped with new genes that govern production of useful chemicals.He took a first step toward this goal three years ago in showing that the natural DNA from one bacterium could be inserted into another and would take over the host cell’s operation. Last year his team synthesized a piece of DNA with 1,080,000 bases, the chemical units of which DNA is composed. In a final step, a team led by Daniel G. Gibson, Hamilton O. Smith and J. Craig Venter report in Thursday’s Science that the synthetic DNA takes over a bacterial cell just as the natural DNA did, making the cell generate the proteins specified by the new DNA’s genetic information in preference to those of its own genome.

The team ordered pieces of DNA 1,000 units in length from Blue Heron, a company that specializes in synthesizing DNA, and developed a technique for assembling the shorter lengths into a complete genome. The cost of the project was $40 million, most of it paid for by a company Dr. Venter founded called Synthetic Genomics.

But a number of prominent scientists were underwhelmed with the results. David Baltimore, the influential biologist and former president of CalTech (also formerly of MIT) told The Times: “To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” describing the results as “a technical tour de force” but not breakthrough science.

And one environmental group called Venter's synthetic genome "dangerous technology," and said the project should be stopped until proper safeguards are in place.

This program aired on May 20, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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