June 06, 2007

Synthia’s last hurdle?

Synthia – the “Original Syn” artificial microbe – may have jumped a hurdle that Dolly – the cloned sheep – never could

Synthia, the (theoretical) human-made synthetic microbe – still barely a twinkle in J. Craig Venter’s eye – may be in search of a surrogate micro-mom sometime very soon. According to a research report released today in Science magazine, Synthia (the subject of a patent application discovered by ETC Group a few weeks ago -see “Goodbye Dolly -- Hello Synthia!”) may have overcome her last hurdle. The report, authored by Craig Venter and his colleagues at Synthetic Genomics Inc., claims to have inserted a foreign bacterial genome into the cell of another bacterial species. Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith who is one of Venter’s co-authors in the research article told a meeting of synthetic biologists in Zürich on Monday that this represents a significant step en route to building a whole new life form. As the article itself concludes, “…we have discovered a form of bacterial DNA transfer that permits … recipient cells to be platforms for the production of new species using modified natural genomes or manmade genomes…”  

“In the case of Dolly the cloned sheep,” says Jim Thomas of ETC Group, “the job was to insert a single parent’s DNA into an embryonic cell for replication. Venter’s group replaces the host cell’s natural DNA with another species.” “The peas in this pod would not look alike at all,” adds ETC’s Executive Director, Pat Mooney, “it's like pod-outcasting.”

The team of synthetic Genomics scientists inserted the whole genome of Mycoplasma capricolum – a bacterium that often infects goats – into another bacterium showing that it is possible to “boot up” a new species through the cells of another species. “Synthia – the artificial goat bug – may, if it works, surpass Dolly – the lamb clone – with the scientific breakthrough,” says Pat Mooney.

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